Keeping Promises

Curtis Korver, pastor of Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, delivered this sermon on National Aboriginal Day, June 24, 2007. (Used with permission.)

"Do not remove the ancient landmark that your ancestors set up...Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you."
–Proverbs 22:28; 23:10-11

Today I want to put before us National Aboriginal Day. It's a broad topic, loaded with subtleties and complexities. A lot of hard thinking and no small amount of prayer has gone into this and I'm still certain that I don't have the definitive word for you.

But I have persisted because the offering today is for the Urban Aboriginal Ministries in Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg. The one that we know best is probably the Indian and Metis Christian Fellowship in Regina. They are in our classis, our geographical group of churches. If we are asked to give to it, it would be nice to know what's at stake.

The other reason that I have persisted is that I often say to people, "If you have a Bible text or a topic that you think should be addressed on a Sunday morning, then let me know. I'll give it a try." And if you make a promise like that, you should probably see it through. A few months ago, Darryl asked me to observe National Aboriginal Day on June 24. I stalled for a while but finally said, "Yeah, sure, Darryl, I'll give it a try." Darryl replied, "Oh, about that. I won't be in church that Sunday..."

Even with the decision made, I still wondered, Why mark this day? In the cultural mosaic of Canada, there are many cultures to celebrate. We could set a precedent here. Next week could be Ukrainian dancers, and you know that among way too many Dutch people around here we would have to have wooden shoe clad Klumpen dancers the week after that.

Besides, there are a lot of topics that need our attention. Aren't matters of marriage and family and forgiveness and growth in Christ more pressing, closer to our own needs?

Beside that, we're going to have to name the elephant in the living room. It's been in all the papers. It's the land claims issue. There are a lot of people on reserves making demands that may or may not be legitimate. Many aboriginals are saying land that is theirs according to treaties has been taken away from them. Many non-aboriginals who live on said land and have paid dearly for it beg to differ. This creates a conflict and there are many threats of violence if the conflict is not settled quickly. This gets complicated. I don't think any of us appreciate those kinds of threats. We have a rule of law in this country and we don't settle things by violence. And those kinds of thoughts are often coupled with reports of corruption in band offices and squalid living conditions on land that aboriginals do have despite the money poured into them year after year. Another elephant could appear in the living room and we'll have to name it: our own stereotypes and prejudices.

With apologies to Darryl, I would have been content to let the whole thing pass me by. Except that two passages from the book of Proverbs wouldn't leave me alone.

Don't move ancient boundary stones. A family's land was essential. In an agrarian society, land was food. Food was survival. Take away a family's land and the people don't simply move into town and get a job at a call center or at the auto plant. What would happen is that a family would be split up to look for work. And work in that situation often meant a kind of servanthood akin to slavery. Land was knitted into the social fabric, the family, the nation; the culture was centered on land. A person's ability to thrive, to live the life God had in mind for the person depended heavily on land.

This is rooted in Scripture:

  • Leviticus 25 is a lengthy chapter filled with laws to ensure that families kept their land to grow food and stay together. Most strikingly, it says that if the worst happens and a family must sell land, then the buyer is given a long-term plan for giving back the land.
  • Deuteronomy 25 tells what happens when a woman loses her husband. The dead man's brother was obligated to marry the widow, provide for her, have children with her so that the dead man's family could continue and live on the land. If the brother refused, the town elders were to lean heavily on the brother to make him change his mind. If he didn't, the widow was to meet the man at the city gates, where the elders would often meet. She was to rip off his sandal, strike him with the sandal, spit in his face and announce that the man's family would forever be known as the "unsandaled." For his failure to help family thrive, he and his family would live under a kind of curse.
  • In the book of Joshua, the story of the struggles Israel had moving into the Promised Land, almost half the book is given to detailed explanations of what families and clans will get what land. God does not approve when deals are broken, when people are cheated out of land that has been given to them, when families and ways of life are destroyed because some people are determined to get more than their share. God cares that deals are kept. God is concerned that no one is left behind. God cares that deals are kept, the old, established, agreed upon boundaries stay in the same place. God cares about treaties.

Oh, one more story. In 2 Samuel 21, David is king of Israel and Israel experiences a famine. David is the king so it's his job to inquire of God what has gone wrong and then set about correcting it. David learns that the previous king, Saul, failed to keep a treaty with the Gibeonites. I'll hazard a guess that not many history books have information about the Gibeonites, nor do the books express concern that a treaty was not honored. God noticed it, though. Things weren't corrected until seven male members of King Saul's family were killed. It's a brutal story riddled with horrible violence and there's nothing in the story to suggest that kind of cruelty should be normal. But it certainly tells us treaties must be honored.

We don't have to take time on a Sunday morning to mark National Aboriginal Day. Preachers don't have to use their pulpits to cry out and demand the quick settlement of land claims. But to ignore the whole matter, to think that the whole matter has nothing to do with me, is to risk stepping outside of a fresh, flowing current that runs all through the Bible. There is a current running through the Bible, a stream that ensures fresh water and irrigation and life to all to whom God has given land--or if not land, then the space and opportunity to thrive. If we say that none of that really affects me, then there is a chance that we have stepped out of a deep and wide stream of the Bible.

That stream flows right to the very last book of the Bible. In the book of Revelation, believers are given white robes. The thing about those robes is that they are seamless. They are one piece of fabric – when one part is torn or snagged or stained, the whole fabric is stained. In other words, it's hard, even impossible, to say that certain parts of life, certain matters of justice, certain commands of the Bible aren't really our concern. National Aboriginal Day and associated issues call for our attention.

So, do you know what I have just done here? I've spent most of my sermon time explaining why we're hearing this particular sermon. I wonder what my old preaching professors would say about that. I know what they would say; they would say, "We knew he wouldn't amount to much."

Since I just used up most of my time telling you why I'm talking at all, I better wrap up quickly. Here's a top ten list of things you can do in response to Aboriginal Day and land claims issues. Except it's not really a top ten list. I don't even have ten things and the things I do have don't necessarily have to be done by everyone. Here are some things that we should consider. Some of them we must do.

For one, it's probably a good idea to become a little educated about the matter. Here's some education for you. This is a map that indicates all the land area that is under treaty. I'm not a treaty expert and I don't intend to become one. I was surprised to see this: deals have been struck for almost all of the arable land in Canada. In other words, we have set boundary stones all over the place. If someone thinks the stone has been moved and can make a pretty good case for it, then we better listen.

Another thing to do: Prime Minister Harper and Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice have announced a whole new way of settling land claims. National Chief Phil Fontaine thinks the plan is a good one. A few others that I've talked to also think it's a good one. Some of you may want to write your MP and say, "This is good. Make sure that the bill finally and quickly becomes law."

A third thing: We may need to confess the sin of racism. We may need to confess that we have judged people and made negative inferences about a person based purely on their race and not on their character or behavior. That's wrong and if we have done it, we must turn away from it.

This leads to a fourth thing: if we have confessed the sin of racism, then we need to let God start making some changes in our attitudes and thoughts and actions. Let me give one example. On Friday, June 29, several promises and threats have been made of a day of disruption. If roads or railways run across disputed land, then natives will to their best to disrupt the flow. I know I'll have to connect myself to a heart monitor – not because my physical heart is at risk but because I won't like that action and I'll have to be sure that I still have respect and understanding and a measure of love for the people responsible for the action. We don't have to love every kind of behavior, but we're told to love every kind of person.

A fifth thing is closely related. We need to watch our conversation. If the business of native reserves or land claims or deplorable housing on reserves comes up – and given the political and social climate right now, it's likely that we'll find ourselves in such conversations – then we should use extreme caution. Let's not make simplistic, rash statements about complex matters.

A sixth thing we can do is support the Indian and Metis Christian Fellowship in Regina with prayer and today, with money. That is a neat organization. The building is in what MacLean's magazine called the worst neighborhood in Canada. From that building they provide a safe place. They have food. They hold prayer meetings with a lot of people every week. From that center, they have started a John's School. Trying to help the many aboriginal prostitutes, they try to take away the demand for prostitution by re-educating johns, the customers of prostitutes. The school has been so effective that when police arrest a john, he is given a choice – pay a fine or do jail time or attend the John's School. In the worst neighborhood in Canada, we help provide the greatest hope and complete salvation.

A seventh thing to do is remember that God has a dream for us. It's a wonderful dream in which all people thrive. Families stay together. No one gets left behind. No one accumulates more and more at the expense of others. This is the reason for the instruction in Proverbs. It's not simply about land. Land was a means to an end. Land was the way that God would help people thrive. This is the news that the church gets to announce and in moments like this and in places like urban aboriginal ministry centers, we announce it loudly and clearly. Churches get to announce it and we are told to announce it. In the now 10 year old Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the church was named as one of the best institutions to bring about healing and restoration and though the report didn't say it this way, they were saying, "the church will be a key part of bringing about God's dream for all creation and creatures."

There is one more thing to do. Celebrate Aboriginal culture. Go visit the Glenbow museum and marvel at some of the beautiful and old garments – stunning design and beadwork. Take a look around and marvel at how native tribes survived for perhaps thousands of years through cold winters and hot summers and drought and flood and all the while lived in near perfect harmony with creation. We could learn a thing or two from that. Celebrate a culture of welcoming strangers. Push past the stories of drunk Indians. Push past stereotypes and see a complex and rich and lively nation of people. Listen for stories of healthy families, of healing from abuse at residential schools. Listen for reports of reserves or urban missions where things are good and getting better. And give thanks. Give thanks that God has created us all in rich diversity, different traditions, different songs, dances, art, and stories. We do exactly that in prayer...

Click here for more sermon ideas, a link to a video commemorating Prime Minister Harper's apology to Aboriginal people, and a host of other worship resources.

More worship resources are available from The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

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