On Making Space, and First Steps Towards Reconciliation

The following sermon makes the most sense if you heard the people at church sharing about attending Mennonite Native Assembly and Pauingassi Family Camp.   But if you weren’t there, feel free to still read on.

Several years ago, I was at a bonfire.  Sitting in the dark, I ended up talking to somebody that I didn’t know.  He was a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, so we ended up talking hockey for a bit.  He sold car parts for a living, so we talked about car parts for a bit.

And then he asked me the dreaded question…. “So what do YOU do?”

“Well, I’m a pastor.”

And then he opened up his jacket and slipped his beer bottle into his jacket.  Because obviously when we were talking about hockey and car parts, all I was really thinking about was the fact that he was drinking beer.

But, I guess this goes with the territory.  I work as a pastor, and people attach all sorts of ideas to that.  And usually, if they don’t want anything to do with church, our conversations generally stop.

But, I’ve figured out a solution to this conundrum.

When people ask me “What do you do for a living?” I now start off with this, “Well, the answer to that question is usually a conversation stopper.”

So now the person is intrigued (does he sell cigarettes to children?), doesn’t want to be responsible for ending a good conversation, or want me to think that they’re jerks, so they usually say “No no… It’s okay.  I promise I won’t stop talking to you.”

“Okay.  I’m a pastor.”

And now I haven’t lost a friend.

But then they ask me another question:  “So… Tell me about your church.”

Now, this is where it gets interesting, especially if they themselves aren’t really churchy people.  Usually, we end up exchanging a bunch of questions to try to figure out some common ground.

They ask, “What denomination is your church?”  I ask, “Well, have you heard of Mennonites before? No?  Well, let’s go back to 1525, when Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock and Felix Manz baptized each other.  Or we can talk about the Russian Revolution.  Or not.”

They ask, “How big is your church?”  “Well, we have 140 active members, 70 active non-members, 70 inactive members, an average attendance of 160 some on Sundays, 150 mailboxes, about 40 kids, plus an unknown number of people in Steinbach who say that Grace Mennonite is their church but they’re not in our church phone directory.”  Well, this conversation is going good places.

So then I ask, “Do you go to church?”  And if they don’t, then they look at me like I’m judging them, or that I’ve asked them a ridiculous question.

And now, at this point, you should all be grateful that you get to answer the question of where you work with, “Teacher”  “Accountant”  “Nurse”  “Trucker” “Carpenter”  “Financial Adviser” because those conversations usually don’t end up talking about the Reformation and the Crusades and whether or not you can have a beer.

But, what I HAVE discovered is that I CAN talk very bravely and freely about us here at Grace Mennonite trying making spaces to listen to other people’s stories, both within our congregation and in our world.

And I think that us participating in Native Assembly and our partnership with Pauingassi First Nation is part of us seeking a posture of humility and learning to listen.

My friend Melanie, who has joined us in Pauingassi, was on the planning committee for Native Assembly.  After the Assembly, she reflected on her experiences, and the following stuck out:

“Most importantly for me personally, however, were the spaces that these presentations and workshops opened up for people to further discuss a variety of issues and to share their stories with one another. It was by listening to others talk about who they are, where they are from, what they are passionate about and what they struggle with, that relationships of deep respect began to form despite some significant differences in worldviews and theologies.”

It was by listening to others talk that relationships of deep respect began to form.

Or one could also think of the assembly as a gathering of gift giving—offering each other the gifts from our places and thereby also offering each other the gifts of our identities—extending relationship and kinship to each other.

Our lives are a gift.  A gift to be both given and received.

And in order to form relationships, in order to share our lives as gifts, we first have to show up and listen to each other.

That sounds an awful lot like Jesus, the guy who eats with sinners, doesn’t it?  It sounds like the guy who made the outsiders, the outcasts, those on the margins feel like the most important people in the world.   There’s an emphasis on relationships and love, and that any conversation about faith and morality and justice and homelessness best happens in the context of relationships.

I think that we all know this.  We hate it when people we don’t know come to our doors to tell us what to believe and how to live.

It’s only in the context of loving relationships that most of us are willing to entertain the idea of changing behaviours or worldviews.   And even if we end up disagreeing, that loving relationship is still there, and isn’t that more important things anyways?

Here in Canada, we’ve been seeing many stories of First Nations hit the news.  Between the almost 1200 murdered and missing aboriginal women, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Idle No More movement, the anti-fracking protests, the movement to remove the mercury dumped in the river in Grassy Narrows, I’m going to venture to say that many of the relationships between First Nations and the rest of the country are a bit broken.  In some ways, this broken relationship a bit subtle, but in other ways, not so much.  Just go and read the online comments on any news article that talks about First Nations.  Or better yet, don’t.  Don’t read the online comments.  Never read the online comments.

There is something seriously broken in this relationship.

Wab Kinew, who works as a journalist and at the University of Winnipeg as the director of Indigenous Inclusion, says that,  “Reconciliation with Indigenous nations is the biggest social justice issue awaiting confrontation in Canada today.”

Something is broken.

I don’t have a lot of answers on how to fix it, but I do know a really good first step.

Show up.  Listen.  Laugh.  Learn.  Love.  Simply be together.

If any work towards reconciliation is to happen in Canada, it’s only going to happen in the context of meaningful, healthy, relationships.

So we continue to show up, and listen, and try to understand.

Justice Murray Sinclair put it nicely on CBC:

“A commitment to change will also call upon Canadians to realize that reconciliation is not a new opportunity to convince aboriginal people to “get over it” and become like “everyone else.” That is, after all, what residential schools were all about and look how that went.

It is an opportunity for everyone to see that change is needed on both sides and that common ground must be found. We are, after all, talking about forging a new relationship, and both sides have to have a say in how that relationship develops or it isn’t going to be new.”

I hope this is what we are trying to do here at Grace.  I pray this is what we are doing here at Grace.  Because this is what who we believe Jesus is.  This is what we believe Jesus did.  That we continue working towards meaningful, healthy relationships with each other and with others.

I believe in reconciliation.  I believe that God is busy restoring the world.   I think a bunch of you did when you made our mission statement years ago when you said that we would accept and care for all people.  And I think it’s the way of Jesus.

May we all seek to make space for one another’s stories, because this is the way of Jesus.


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