Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Acts 2:44-46; Matthew 5:21-26
Listen to the sermon here
According to the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew, Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with sister or brother is subject to judgment; anyone who says to sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and anyone who vilifies them with name-calling will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
“Gehenna” a valley outside of Jerusalem where people burned their garbage. Gehenna a filthy stinking kind of place where, in the heat of the day, fires consumed the trash of the city. Gehenna a loathsome place that looms large in our collective imaginations as the mythical hell that haunts our culture, tormenting so us with nightmares of our own making.
“Anyone who says to sister or brother, “I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin” – the Sanhedrin – the people’s court – a place where society judges our actions, “anyone who vilifies” a sister or brother, with name-calling bill be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”
What is this doing in the Bible? Where is the Good News? Why did our ancestors in the faith preserve this particular piece of storytelling? “Anyone who says to a sister or brother, ‘I spit in your face!’ will be subject to the fires of Gehenna.”? What is the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Matthew trying to tell us? “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call Matthew, knew a great deal about the kind of disputes that may have inspired Jesus to want to cast members of his own tribe upon the dung-heap of his society. Remember, Jesus own people were colonizers in the land of Palestine. Colonizers all too often resort to spitting, both metaphorically and quite literally in the eyes of the people that they are colonizing. So, I can well imagine the kinds of disputes that would have been rampant in a land of Palestine that had been colonized over and over again. Jesus’ own tribe, the Jewish people, had colonized the Canaanites. In Jesus’ day, the first inhabitants along with the Jewish colonizers were in turn colonized by the Romans. Inter-tribal disputes were a dime, or should I say, a shekel a dozen. I can well imagine that there was a lot of spitting going on.
Land claims; we here in Canada suffer under the delusion that we are the only ones who must deal with complications over who owns the land. But this kind of tribal turmoil has been going on since long before the Hebrews wandered off into the wilderness of the desert and found themselves dreaming of a Promised Land. One person’s promised land is another person’s home. It seems to me that the only way to justify driving a fellow human-being off their homeland is to dehumanize them. Human history is filled with examples of one group of humans moving in on another group of humans and it usually begins with one human deciding that the other human is less of a human than they are. Colonizers, by definition, dehumanize the colonized. Dehumanizing others, inspires the kind of contempt that allows some of us to spit in the faces of others of us.
First century Palestine, like 21st century Palestine afforded all sorts of people the opportunity to spit in the faces of all sorts of people. When you scratch the surface of all the spitting you can usually discover some sort of dispute over land. We humans suffer from the original sin of believing that we can actually own the land; as if the land is ours and ours alone. And yet, every tribe in every land, has an innate sense that the land comes to us as pure gift from the Creator of the land. This Creator of land, however our particular tribe imagines this Creator, is the ONE we look to as the ultimate owner of the land. But we humans have this ugly snake that lives deep down inside us, that fills our heads with delusions of grandeur, that deceive us into believing that we and we alone are the ones who are wise enough to occupy a particular place in a particular time. Oh, we humans are very adept at dressing up our naked aggression, but there hasn’t been a fig leaf made that can disguise our hubris. And so, we spit in the face of those who reflect our nakedness back to us.
This particular allegory of Jesus insisting that such contempt will lead us all to the rotting, smoldering, garage heap that haunts our deepest nightmares, is not a particularly cheery tale for a Sunday morning. These verses from our sacred scripture don’t get much airplay in our sacred spaces. You don’t often hear about the dire consequences of our contempt for one another. Oh, sure we know that these verses are there, but we’d rather forget about them, and we certainly don’t want to be reminded of Gehenna on a summer Sunday. Which brings me full circle to what I want to remind us of on this particular summer Sunday. For like these uncomfortable verses of scripture that remind each of us of the contempt that slithers about in the dark places of our psyche, there’s a particular kind of contempt that most of us don’t particularly want to be reminded of at this particular time of the year. As our nation prepares to celebrate “Canada 150,” none of us want to think about the many ways our celebrations are spitting in the face of our sisters and brothers, who continue to suffer from the realities of the colonization which continues to benefit each of us as settlers in these lands that we love.
“Canada 150,” as if our various tribes’ appearance in these lands, marks the starting point of Canada. 12 to 15 thousand years, that’s how long the experts insist indigenous peoples had lived upon the lands we call Canada. Indigenous: “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place” As opposed to, settlers who colonized, these lands, displacing the indigenous by whatever means necessary so that our peoples could become the masters of these lands. Our ancestors, the original colonizers, brought diseases that wiped out whole nations of peoples. Our ancestors, the original settlers, inspired by contempt for the First Nations of these lands, drove millions off their various homelands. Our ancestors, came in waves, to settle these lands and over generations adopted tactics designed to rid these lands of “Indians”.
But just like our sacred scriptures that warn against the folly of spitting in the face of our opponents, the colonization of these lands happened a long time ago. We’d rather forget about all that and move on. The trouble is we settlers keep spitting in the faces of our indigenous sisters and brothers. And for those of us, who believe that we are not like our ancestors, the reality that our government is spending half-a-billion dollars this year to celebrate “Canada 150” while 134 indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water — well if that is not spiting in the face of our sisters and brothers, I’m not sure that we setters will ever understand what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Matthew was trying to tell us, let alone what Jesus lived and died for.
Listen to the words of our Metis sister, Christi Belcourt as she reacts to the spit that has landed on her face.
I can cite for you
Lists of the dead
150 languages no longer spoken
150 rivers poisoned
150 Indigenous children taken into care last month
150 Indigenous communities without water
150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg
150 times a million lies
told to our faces
to steal our lands.
I can cite for you
Forms of resistance
150 battles to the death
150 water warriors walking
150 naming ceremonies
150 ways we shake the ground with dance and song
150 tattooed expressions of sovereignty
150 times 2 million days faces were painted
with earth of this land.
I can cite for you
Summers coming of resurgence
150 thousand babies birthed in ceremonies
150 thousand status cards burned
150 thousand youth marching for water
150 thousand children with braids and feathers in their hair
150 thousand Indigenous words being spoken without English
150 summers coming
of Mother Earth calling out to our hearts
150 summers coming
where you too, will finally come to understand
the power and spirit of these lands and waters
as our ancestors have known and have been trying to tell you for 500 years.”
Christi Belcourt is calling upon you and I to recognize that our “Canada 150” celebrations are in fact a celebration of 150 years of colonization. Perhaps it is time for us to really hear the words of our own sacred scriptures: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar.Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will through you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Justice, real justice would extract a high price from those of us who continue to enjoy the benefits of 150 years of colonization. Fortunately, our indigenous sisters and brothers are not insisting upon an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down with them to work together to find a way forward upon these lands that we all love. They are inviting us to do what the members of our Christian tribe have done since the first followers of the way began to chart a path in the wilderness of their own colonial nightmare. Our ancestors in the faith gathered together and in the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes every day. With joyful and sincere hearts, they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.”
Our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to sit down together to break bread with one another, so that we can find ways to share the blessings of these lands that we love. We are being invited to share in a process that is embodied in the smudging ceremony that purifies the space to permit the sacred energy that exists between peoples to lead us forward in peace.
So, during the days of celebration, let us open ourselves to the possibilities of peace among the lovers of these lands. Let us remember twelve to fifteen thousand years of history on these lands, and let us honour all those who have gone before us, all those who will come after us, by learning to live in harmony with our sisters and brothers upon these lands that we call Canada.