Year A; 4 Epiphany.FB; 1.29.2023
Matthew 5:1-12 Beatitudes and Vestry Retreat
Our St. Paul’s Vestry retreat opened this weekend with the Territory Statement of Wabanaki Tribe Sovereignty. You may remember that Katie, our assistant rector recited it by memory at the beginning of worship in the Great Hall last Sunday for Life Together Sunday. Our St. Paul’s 9:00 a.m. Non-traditional Eucharist starts worship every Sunday with this statement. So, as Katie and I planned worship for last Sunday, we agreed that we wanted to share it with the entire congregation.
What happened after that was inspiring. One of our members wrote a letter to our Senator, Angus King asking why the Wabanaki tribes have not been granted sovereignty. He wrote her back right away with his informative reasons as a Senator that he did not favor it. Another member who was in the congregation that day contacted Katie for guidance on how to introduce the statement to Curtis Memorial Library. That request made sense because, as our neighbor, Curtis Memorial Library is also on what was formerly Wabanaki Federation territory.
It’s a powerful statement and helps us as a congregation face, in our little corner of the United States, the truth of how land was taken by White Europeans who claimed and settled the land for themselves.
I invite you to hear these words, not with a feeling of guilt, but with a feeling of blessedness, that the land, its fruit and creatures were a blessing to the First Nations people back then, and that it is to be honored and cared for by us now. It is more than just a statement. It is a prayer. It is a prayer of gratitude, blessing, repentance and hope:
“We acknowledge that we stand on territory that was taken from the people of the Wabanaki Confederacy. May we always remember that the Earth does not belong to us, that we belong to the Earth, and that we are all relatives in life. May we learn from our past sins and be instruments of justice and peace for all people in today’s world.”
Many of us have seen the St. Paul’s announcement that award-winning storyteller Antonio Rocha (haw sha) is coming to perform his one-person play, “A Slave Ship Called Malaga,” at St. Paul’s in March. His performance is funded by the Sacred Ground grant given to St. Paul’s by the late Caroline Russell. In the write-up of the performance, we learn the history of Joseph Badger, one of the very first Vestry members of St. Paul’s who built the slave ship Malaga in 1832.
This history was discovered in several archives by some of our members after they completed their 10-session Sacred Ground course. They wanted to know more about the roots of St. Paul’s origins. The knowledge of a Vestry member who was a slave trader and who built the slave ship is upsetting to us.
We can’t go back in history and make things right with the land. We can’t go back and have a “do-over” with the slave trading Vestry member. But we can make a turn to acknowledge the truth of our history, shine a light on it and make a profound turn toward the righteous justice and blessedness that Jesus teaches.
During our retreat time this weekend, the Vestry and I studied the book, “The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community” written by the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers. She is a Black priest who loves the Episcopal Church. Her book helped us see that the history of the Episcopal Church has been is deeply connected to the power structures in this country. Canon Spellers helped us face the ugly truth that White superiority and the church went hand-in-hand. Our Vestry members, led by Katie’s able, deeply knowledgeable and lived experience as a Southern woman married to a Black man also from the South, was able to speak to each other truthfully and authentically about our history and explore God’s call to truth and justice now.
During the conversation which was respectful, heart-felt and gentle, a Vestry member encouraged us to continue to share authentically, candidly and publicly, the truth of our history. We agreed that honesty and truth attract people to find a home in our faith community. I was encouraged by what this Vestry member said, “The reason people join a congregation is because the [community] tells the truth about themselves – candidly, authentically facing the truth.” And I know that we are a blessed community because we are facing our history, accepting God’s call for justice and doing what we can now to turn away from past sinful practices and toward God’s justice.
Jesus preached God’s blessedness, and authentically lived it. In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning, we hear the very first words he taught as he began the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. They are a state of being blessed, rather than a “to do” list. In the list of twelve blessings in the Beatitudes, Jesus wanted the crowd to hear him when he spoke the truth about God’s blessedness. The people would have heard immediately that the list of blessings was counter to anything they were experiencing in their world.
The community of Matthew was under the “boot” of the Roman Empire. Their lives were being squeezed by Roman domination. The community also was dependent for their faith and culture on an elite Jewish establishment that cared more for their own status and wealth than teaching and living an authentic relationship with God.
Jesus came to offer a better way, God’s way. They heard the truth that “…those who receive God’s favor are not these privileged classes. The Beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievement or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the despised, the justice seekers, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted because of their beliefs.” They are a deep consolation for those who find themselves poor and in mourning and persecuted.
I know that it is easy for us to become cynical, feel hopeless or guilty about the world and our history. How can things change and start to look like the blessedness of God’s realm Jesus preached in the Beatitudes? This seems too impossible in a hopeless, broken world. In our lowest moments, we might ask, “What’s the point of ‘blessedness’ when things probably won’t get better?”
This weekend our Vestry and I looked at the long history of our country taking territory and culture away from the First Nations People and the White superiority that the Episcopal Church cultivated with the powers of our country. We spoke out loud of the challenge of any way forward to justice. We fretted that a feeling of guilt was just a band-aid and postpones real action.
And yet, and yet…by the end of the day yesterday, we had filled a flipchart with a brainstorm of actions of justice we wish to take for a “Justice Creed” that Katie invited us to write. We couldn’t have felt more hopeful, joyful and cohesive as leaders of a faith community that is turning to face our history, sharing it truthfully and to doing God’s justice.
We concluded our retreat by singing “The Canticle of the Turning.” We stood together, swaying to the music, using instruments and smiling from ear to ear as we sang together:
“My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears
For the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn!”
My friends, “And the world is about to turn!”
Imagine joining Jesus in the hope of a turning world!