July 2, 2017: “Risky Apologies” by Rev. Christine Boyle (Genesis 22: 1-14)

When we were looking at the worship calendar for this summer, there was some discussion about whether or not we could ignore Canada Day.

We decided not to. Not this year, as the colonial project of Canada turns 150 years old.

Canada has a checkered past. We have many incredible people and institutions worthy of celebration – public healthcare, a powerhouse national womens’ soccer team.

As well as a painful history of genocide, internment, disenfranchisement – a history that continues to be felt in communities, passed down through generations.

This celebration and this grief are both true and the combination of them is uncomfortable.

AND there is no path to transformation – individual and collective transformation – that doesn’t first take us through discomfort – through deep, and sometimes painful, reckoning.

Individually and collectively, we are not, and have never been, perfect. Pretending otherwise does us no good. Preaching is about sharing the Good News. And the good news lies in the possibility that our past mistakes might transform us.

Now, for a little perspective, in the scheme of geological history, a 150-year-birthday is pretty little. Even on a timeline of human history, 150 is very young.

This past Spring an ancient village was discovered in Heiltsuk territory, 500km NW of Victoria. The village is believed to be one of the oldest human settlements ever found in North America – the remains that were found were estimated to be 14,000 years old.

Older even than Egypt’s pyramids. [1]

Older even than this biblical story we just heard – and maybe that we’d like to avoid – the cringe-worthy story of a God who demands that Abraham kill his only son, Isaac, born to Abraham and his wife – who might have also been his half-sister – Sarah after a life of infertility, so that Abraham could prove his fear of, and therefore his love for, God.

Yikes.

I don’t need to tell you that this story does not work particularly well for me. Like the overt nationalism of Canada Day, this is a story I would like to avoid. And it too, is fertile ground for recognizing and participating in transformation.

You see, God has changed since Abraham’s time. Certainly our understanding of – our relationship with – God has changed since Abraham’s time. And even saying “changed” is understating it. God – our understanding of God – has been transformed.

It hasn’t happened quickly. And if you are looking, it’s certainly still possible to locate evidence of that God of Abraham in hearts, and hymns, and liturgies. That is where we come from, but it is not all of who we as Christians are, and it certainly doesn’t need to be where we are headed.

I am of a generation that is more comfortable with change than with stagnation. It’s what we’re most used to. So I’m drawn to Process Theology.

Process Theologians speak about the things that do endure, including electrons, molecules and cells, and the human soul.

And they speak about events and experiences that are distinct and that do not endure over time, that “arise, become, and reach completion.” But even these distinct events, they say, have an essential relatedness.

Theologian John Cobb – who, at age 91, was at CMUC drinking beer and taping a podcast last summer – Cobb explains that even distinct events are not independent and separable. They are “essentially related to previous experiences”. Their relationship to past events is primary – they are only distinct in how they react to those events.

The basic idea is that everything is informed by everything that came before it. There is no ‘it’ that isn’t part of that web of relationships and process. Here in this Sanctuary, that may seem obvious. But it is such a deeply counter-cultural notion that it bears repeating.

It is so significant because the Process Theologians include God in this calculation.

Our faith is shaped by an ancient history of a God who demanded horrific tests as proof of love. AND it has simultaneously been shaped over thousands of years by astounding acts of love.

In powerfully clear language, Cobbs says: present occasions feel past occasions. This implies, he says, that “each occasion is a selective incarnation of the whole past universe” – How’s that for a theological statement? And this means “that our activities will make a difference throughout the future. Future occasions will necessarily prehend [or feel, and be impacted by] us.”

It’s in that sweet middle spot that we always find ourselves – between feeling the past and impacting the future. We are created and creating beings, of a creator and creating God.

That’s the middle spot that we live in today, amid celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday.

We give, we worship, on land with a history of genocide. We are the descendants of survivors and – for a great number of us – of perpetrators and beneficiaries of that cultural and physical genocide, or we are more recent immigrants and settlers onto land with that history.

More stunning is how that history continues to be felt today. Felt in a variety of legal, resource and land disputes, where the government of Canada is on one side, arguing against Indigenous peoples – where our shared tax dollars are used to resist the rights, health and title of Indigenous people.

That history is felt by the massive over representation of Aboriginal children in foster care, and Aboriginal people incarcerated in prisons, Aboriginal people in our homeless populations – symptoms of intergenerational trauma, and symptoms of systemic bias in our institutions, institutions that shame, blame, and penalize Aboriginal people more quickly than supporting them.

How we React to these things is what defines who we are, and what defines who we become into the future.

One way to react is to apologize.

In 1986 the United Church of Canada apologized to First Nations people for the pain and suffering caused by the Residential Schools, and reached further back in history, to apologize for the physical and theological damage done by early missionaries and colonists.

It took until 2008 for the Government of Canada to apologize for Residential Schools.

Both of these apologies were powerful moments of being in relationship with, and being transformed by, our past mistakes. The United Church’s 1986 apology from the Right Reverand Bob Smith read, in part:

“Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.

We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.

We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.

We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.”[2]

Good, heart-felt and well articulated apologies are hard to come by. The church, in this apology, did very well. The problem, usually, is that even in apologizing we want to be right. Our brain jumps in to conceal or protect our heart.

Comedian Amy Poehler wrote in her 2014 book about a gut-wrenching mistake she made –on live TV to Saturday Night Live’s millions of viewers. And about the three years in which that mistake ate away at her before she finally apologized.

She gives examples of two apology letters – one from the brain – an apology that attempts to explain, justify, to clear your name, and one from the heart – that takes risks, that admits imperfection and asks nothing.

An apology from the heart means risking a brokenness that may not be mended in our lifetime. AND it creates the uncertain, uncontrollable, space for transformation.

It’s a choice. And, like everything, a calculation of what can be gained and what might be lost. Each mistake, all of our reckoning, presents an opportunity. Put up a safe, strong wall, or crack open a little more.

No part of process theology, no aspect of the science of evolution, no review of human history, suggests we will always choose right. There’s no guarantee that being people in process means we are people who will naturally progress. Sometimes – many times – we, our leaders, our governments, get defensive, or don’t pause to reflect – we refuse to feel past events, and our mistakes compound upon one another.

How we react is a choice, and these choices are intimate, and risky.

Everything is informed by everything that came before it. But how we react is what defines who we are, and who we become.

The cliché may be that Canadians say Sorry too often. But to do it well – to admit our imperfections without needing to explain and justify – and to really, really be willing to be transformed by them – we all could do a little more of that.

The government of Canada’s formal apology paved the way for the 5.5 year Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Many of you, I suspect, participated in some event related to that process.

The United Church of Canada’s 1986 apology has led into deeper relationships with Indigenous people, through church structures like the Aboriginal Ministries Circle, and through shared advocacy and faithful public witness efforts.

It may be, for some of us, that these heart-driven apologies on Indigenous Rights don’t see resolution in our lifetime. That they feel like picking at wounds from our past.

But I want to tell you – when the Government of Canada made that apology in 2008, I was working as a youth and family worker at an elementary school where the majority of our families were Aboriginal. That morning our lunchroom/auditorium was packed with kids and families watching, and there was not a dry eye in sight.

I have seen the pride of young Indigenous dancers at the Friendship Centre, and the love of Elders and grandchildren at the annual Womens Memorial March, I have heard the Hip Hop of a Tribe Called Red, and watched the round dances of Idle No More.

These apologies have shifted the burdens of blame and responsibility, and young generations of Indigenous People are transforming themselves, their communities and this country.

We are in the early days of this transformation. In time it will entirely transform this country – it will require all sorts of shifts that may be upset the current power imbalance – but we will all be richer for it.

The God that our ancestors knew and wrote about was vengeful, had a fragile ego, played favourites. And that God was evident in our actions. With courage and with resistance, we have become reacquainted with God again and again throughout human history. We have learned, grown, adapted in how we live and how we relate to one another, and along the way we have encountered God doing the same.

Dr Martin Luther King famously quoted theologian Theodore Parker in saying, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. In contrast, process theology says that the divine power is persuasive rather than controlling – the unfolding of justice is not inevitable – it will not happen without our participation.

But when we participate in that work, we do so in the presence of God.

When we soften our hearts to make amends for past errors, when we are willing to loosen our grip on control in order to be transformed, when we show up and do the tangible work of bending the universe toward justice – we are living into the pull of a God who has transformed and is transforming. A God who has a checkered past. A God who longs for justice too.

1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/14000-village-discovered-triquet-island-british-columbia-canada-oldest-settlment-north-america-a7673726.html
2. http://www.united-church.ca/sites/default/files/resources/1986-1998-aboriginal-apologies.pdf