Content Warning: Residential Schools, Racism, Colonialism, Death of Children
GOSPEL: Mark 3:20-35
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
On Monday afternoon, after taking a family drive to make a socially distanced delivery, our household made its way to The Forks. As we drove through the city, the kids asked nervous and fearful questions about the news story that brought us there, trying to make sense of it all. After finding a parking spot and exiting the car, I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism that our family represented. Our children, reminders of the victims of the abuse and tragedy uncovered in Kamloops, Courtenay and I, members of the clergy class who took a central role in perpetrating it.
Today, we are turning the page on the first half of the church year, and entering into the more subdued season of green. For most of the next 26 or so weeks, we will remain in green Ordinary Time, hearing the stories, teachings, ministry, healing, exorcisms and exploits of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Mark.
Yet, this turn towards Ordinary Time begins in a strange spot. Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and appointing his disciples. Then upon his return home, he finds several different groups of people upset with him. His family is searching for him, thinking that he has gone out of his mind. The scribes accuse him of teaching heresy. Crowds are clamouring to hear what he has to say.
In the middle of it all, Jesus offers a parable-like example of Satan’s house divided against itself, about the strong man’s house being robbed, and about families in conflict and division.
It is all rather messy and complicated: Jesus’ family, the scribes, his teachings and the crowds.
As usual, Mark is expecting much from his readers. He expects us to see the bigger and deeper picture: what it means for the divine Son of God, the Messiah to enter into the humanity’s messy state.
And this scene from Mark’s gospel is an example of a very human response to the divine Messiah. People got upset, people were confused, people demanded signs and miracles, people just didn’t know what to make of Jesus.
At a time when our world is full of tragedy and suffering, full ICUs, struggling businesses, lonely seniors, haggard remote learning families and so on… This story comes to us at a particularly poignant moment in Canada. It has been difficult to overshadow the pandemic with news stories this past year. But there have been moments. Last year it was the killing of George Floyd. This year it is the tragic news coming out of Kamloops… the discovery of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Residential School.
While the news came out Thursday night, it quickly snowballed into a furor of outrage, grief, sorrow and lament through days that followed. We have not changed. We are still the messy, confused, upset human beings that we hear about in Mark today.
Just as Jesus points out that a house divided cannot stand, we are reminded that we are a divided and broken house. It was the revelation that opened the eyes of too many to Canada’s colonial history. It was something we should have known, a story that has been told over and over again to settler Canadians:
Six years on from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission…
After countless stories of systemic racism against indigenous peoples in our country…
After news stories about the way the RCMP and other police forces target indigenous peoples…
After reports of indigenous over-representation in our prison system….
After it is revealed that indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19…
After indigenous treaty land rights are routinely ignored by governments for the sake of resource extraction…
After our governments and churches consistently apologize, lament, wring their hands, yet drag their feet when it comes to real action towards implementing reconciliation…
After decades of not providing clean drinking water to too many indigenous communities…
After many mental health crises on First Nations causing too many young people to die of suicide…
After all of that, it still took the remains of 215 children to wake us Settlers up, at least for now, to the fact that Canada is a divided and broken house, just like the one that Jesus describes. We are a nation that has yet to truly discern who our siblings and family are.
When our family arrived at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks, there were about a dozen people scattered around the amphitheater. In the centre was the impromptu memorial. Shoes and stuffed animals, flowers and photos. As we stood at the top of the steps, a boy just Oscar’s age, an indigenous boy, came up and said to Oscar, “Can we be friends?” Oscar looked up at me, and I nodded. The two ran off to explore the edges of the installation. A little indigenous girl Maeve’s age came up to her wanting to see the baby doll that Maeve had brought with her. Together with Courtenay, the two girls made their way down the steps to the centre of the circle to get a closer look at the memorial. They walked around the shoes and stuffed animals, as Courtenay carefully told them the story of why these things were left in this place.
I found a ledge to sit on and watch while they examined the items left at the circle. The pastor in me wanted to gather people and lead them in prayer. Or least to pray myself. Yet, many wise teachers remind us in moments like these it is good to slow down and listen. So, I let my prayer be listening.
In the middle of the disciples, crowds, the angry scribes and his upset family, Jesus’ responses seem odd at first. He rebuffs the religious authorities, telling them that their houses are divided, and unable to stand. Later he brushes off his family, claiming that his family is those who do the will of God.
And yet, there is something more to what Jesus is doing. As the community around him splits off into factions all looking out for their own, Jesus keeps attending to his business.
He has been healing, teaching, calling disciples, and soon he will be teaching the crowds in parables that will ring with familiarity to our ears.
In the middle of this chaotic moment, Jesus holds steadfast to the work of God in the world. Jesus has come for a purpose, to bring the Kingdom of God near to God’s people. Even as the mess of humanity desperately tries to derail his mission, desperately tries to get some more miracles and healings out of him. Jesus sets himself to the task at hand – announcing God’s kingdom come near.
It isn’t flashy or bold or dramatic, but determined and unmovable. Jesus invites those around him into the mission. Jesus invites those who would hear him into his Kingdom building… but if they will not participate, he will go about his business anyway. If those around him want to join in, Jesus calls them to follow.
Jesus reminds the scribes that he is there to do God’s work.
Jesus reminds his family that all those who do the will of God are his family.
Jesus reminds the crowds, that he is there on behalf of the God of all, reconciling creation with Creator.
All too often God knows that we need this reminder. That the work and ministry that we are called to, that Christ through the Body of Christ is doing is the work of the Kingdom.
When Courtenay, Maeve and her friend finally left the memorial in the middle of the circle, another family arrived. The two parents, with their three young kids, walked down to the memorial. As they walked, the mother called to her oldest son, about 5, to stand beside her. Her calm soft voice echoed across the amphitheater, she reminded her son of why they came,
“Remember, these things are for the little ones that I told you about. We are going to offer them tobacco and pray that they go to the good place.”
She took a pinch of sacred tobacco herbs and placed them in her son’s hands. He gingerly sprinkled them over the memorial, and began to pray. “Dear God, take care of all the little ones. Amen” And then the mother did the same with some more tobacco, praying silently to herself.
There I was, a member of the Christian clergy, the same clergy that took children away to residential schools, and in this ancient meeting place, where the people of this land have lived from before Jesus was crucified, before the temple in Jerusalem was built, before the pyramids of Egypt were built… and I was bearing witness to the people and to the land, beginning the work of healing. Here were indigenous children and families, just like the ones that the church and government sought to educate, doing the very thing they tried to wipe out.
It was a moment of grief and sadness, yet also a moment of hope. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work, a sign that, even when humanity drags our feet in the work of reconciliation, God is doing the work of bringing new life into the world.
In the middle of our human mess, of our various factions being upset and confused and angry…
Jesus is doing the work of God – with us or despite us.
And God is bringing hope and healing to the land.
And God is bringing new life into the world.
And Jesus is bringing God and God’s Kingdom near.