Text: Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus in the wilderness)
Lent is a season of 40 days and nights that mixes two metaphors. The first comes from the story we just heard of Jesus tempted in the desert. The second comes from the journey of Jesus and his friends to Jerusalem where they confront religious and imperial power.
On this first Sunday in Lent, I recall a day in July 2008 in which a visit to an Indian Residential School and a nearby chapel made these metaphors come alive in a sharp and painful way for me.
This was in Brantford Ontario in a class called “Aboriginal Spirituality.” We spent five days and nights at the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre, which is on the Grand River outside of Brantford. There we formed a learning circle with native elders from the nearby Six Nations Reserve and were led in Bible Study and theological reflection by Stan McKay, the former Moderator of the United Church and himself a survivor of a Manitoba residential school.
Brantford was founded in 1784 by the Mohawk military leader, Joseph Brant. He and other First Nations people from New York had been given land by the British Crown to reward their loyalty to Britain during the American Revolution. Britain had conceded defeat the year before.
On July 8, we drove the short distance to Brantford. First we toured the chapel. It is a small white building lovingly maintained by First Nations people in the Anglican parish. Built in 1785, it is the oldest building in Ontario still in use.
Inside the chapel, the stained glass windows tell stories of Jesus and of the Iroquois leader The Great Peacemaker who united the Six Nations about 600 years ago. I think it is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever visited.
I was surprised by its name: “Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks.” The name, given by King Edward VII in 1904, highlights the bond between First Nations people, the British Crown, and the Christian churches that supported Britain.
The dark side of that history is found just a short walk from the chapel at the Indian Residential School. Called “The Mohawk Institute,” it was run by the Anglican Church from 1828 until 1969. Today, the school is a museum that tells the history of native children taken from their parents and forced to assimilate to European culture. Like other residential schools, it was more of a prison than a school. The native elders with us that week were survivors of that school, and they shared some of the pain and abuse they had experienced there.
As we walked from the school back to our cars near the chapel, I imagined thousands of native children who had made that same trek every week. From the horrors of the school, they walked to the beautiful chapel to sing hymns, hear a Word of God, and receive communion. I felt a resonance between their short walk and the longer one of Jesus and his friends from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Galilee in the First Century was under Roman Rule. The Galileans were poor Jews who struggled to maintain their culture despite imperial rule. Jerusalem was home to the Temple, one of the most impressive structures in the world. Jews gathered there at Passover to offer sacrifices to God. But like the rest of Palestine, the Temple was under the thumb of the Roman empire, and the high priests collaborated with Rome in order to survive.
Jesus and his friends clashed with both the Romans and the priests. At the beginning of his ministry, the Devil had tempted Jesus with power. But unlike the priests in the Temple or the leaders of Canada’s churches during the years of the residential schools, Jesus resisted. His resistance lead to his death, but it also led to new life at Easter.
Our metaphorical journey in Lent could remind us of how power can distort our ability to know God’s Grace. We have the example of Jesus in the desert and in Jerusalem. But in the face of the power of caesars or kings, we often worship in less than ideal circumstances. We come to temples or churches in which God and Empire are mixed and in which the love of God is obscured by the temptations of power.
Despite these failings, I am sure that faithful Jews often experienced God’s Love in the Temple until its final destruction by the Romans in the Year 70 CE. And I imagine that many of the native children in the Mohawk Institute also experienced God’s Love when they took communion at the Royal Chapel from the same priests who oppressed them in school. The fact that native people still maintain the chapel and that the elders in our learning circle who had survived childhood in the Institute were still active in the church attest to this possibility.
I loved our week in that learning circle. Although it was often painful, at the end of our time together, I felt healed.
On the first morning, we were asked to share a recent moment that had brought us joy. When the talking stick came to me, I couldn’t think of one. I had recently suffered through a breakup and had just finished my first year of training for ministry, which was more a dark night of the soul for me than a time of spiritual uplift.
The circle felt like an appropriate place to share pain. Most powerful was the witness of the school survivors. They had been taken from their parents. They were given terrible food. They were forbidden to speak native languages or practice native customs. Many suffered physical or sexual abuse. I am grateful for the gentle leadership of Stan McKay, which helped us hear this testimony and share our own.
Most of the students from Toronto did not carry traumas as deep as the residential school survivors. But each person’s story provided a mirror in which we might see something of ourselves. All lives include pain and loss as well as joy or happiness. And despite our different ancestries, all of us are scarred by the legacy of empire. We all live in the shadow of past wars and the fear of future ones.
I believe that wherever pain is honestly shared and witnessed, healing appears. This is what happened to me that week in 2008. This is what I hope thousands of us will experience at the Truth and Reconciliation Event in Edmonton at the end of March. And this is what sometimes happens in the sacrament of communion.
Communion is a feast of God’s love freely poured out to all. At the Table we remember Jesus’ life and ministry as well as his betrayal and death. The pain of Holy Week can become a mirror in which we see our own pain and loss. In our very guts and blood, we are invited to share the pain of Jesus and in doing so, to taste the truth of resurrection.
Perhaps some of this was true for the children when they walked to the chapel for Sunday communion. Perhaps in hearing about the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders who collaborated with Rome, the children saw their own fate at the hands of well-meaning church people. Perhaps in the news that Jesus was raised to new life, they nourished a dream that they too would someday rise to a life that was better than the nightmare of the school. Perhaps they experienced at least a little healing as the communion meal united them in shared pain and hope.
That week in circle was the most memorable of my training for ministry. I emerged from it with joy and hope because I had shared some of my own story; because the other students and the native elders had graced us with some of their stories; and because a smudging ceremony and a celebration of communion had reminded us that, despite our brokenness, we are all one body. We were united by the Grace of God, which lives on after earthly empires pass away.
This morning, as we come to the Table, may our pain and that of Jesus become mingled and transformed in the bread and wine. And may we rise from the table filled with joy and the hope that God’s solidarity and compassion will lead to a world in which nations will never again conquer and oppress each other.
Thanks be to God.