Out of Bounds

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Out of Bounds” Acts 11:1-18

Canadians were shocked last May by the news of unmarked graves at residential schools. 215 graves of indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian School in British Colombia.  A few weeks later, 751 graves were discovered at a residential school in Saskatchewan.   Those schools were part of a national policy of assimilation for First Nations’ children which was in place from 1869 until the 1990s. Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to state-sponsored Christian schools.  There they received a basic education and the gospel.  Seventy percent of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church.  Duncan Campbell Scott, who served as the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and ran the boarding school program from 1912-1932, once said, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

Those residential schools were often run by people with little training, empathy, or cultural sensitivity.  65-year-old John Jones recalls his experience as a 7-year-old, taken from his family on the Nahoose Nation and sent to the Alberni Residential School.  There he was punished for speaking his native language or talking about his cultural heritage. At the residential school, John was subjected to daily physical punishment—paddled, slapped, and hit with belts.  He remembers being regularly berated as a dirty, stupid, good-for-nothing Indian.  He was sexually abused by a teacher who traded chocolate bars for illicit late-night visits.

The impact of the residential school system cannot be overstated.  Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that many of the 150,000 children who were sent to the schools were subjected to the same sort of abuse as John Jones.  Thousands died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions.  Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence have been rife among survivors.  The Commission estimates that the 966 graves discovered last year are only the tip of the iceberg in a growing national tragedy.  As Christians, it’s painful for us to hear of the church’s complicity in state-mandated assimilation. It hurts to imagine the gospel of Jesus Christ being shared in a shroud of cultural expectations and demands that have had such far-reaching, destructive consequences.

In our reading from Acts 11, Peter was in hot water for his cross-cultural sharing of the gospel.  Peter’s mission had scandalized the Jewish believers because he had taken the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles of the very worst sort.  Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Regiment, a leader of the foreign occupation of Israel.  Not only had Peter preached to Cornelius and his substantial household, but he had also baptized them, stayed with them, instructed them, and eaten with them.

It’s this last transgression, sharing the table with Gentiles, that was most troubling to Peter’s Jerusalem colleagues.  Keeping a kosher diet was an essential dimension of observing the Torah.  Leviticus 11 made it clear that some foods were pleasing to God (clean) and some were not (unclean).  Eating “clean” foods made the people of Israel holy as God is holy.  Eating unclean Gentile foods, like shellfish or pork, was a sin against God which separated you from God and your Jewish neighbor.  There was more to it.  As an occupied nation, that Jewish diet was a symbol of resistance.  Keeping a clean table reminded the people of Israel that they belonged to God, despite their social and political realities.

In his defense, Peter shared a systematic accounting of his actions.  According to Peter, his every move had been a response to the initiative of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.  God had sent that crazy vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with unclean beasts.  God had commanded him to eat.  God had sent a vision to the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, telling him to summon Peter.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius’s household, even before Peter had finished preaching.  The whole mission had clearly been God’s initiative.  Who was Peter to get in God’s way?  There truly had been nothing left to do, other than to baptize, welcome, and affirm what God had already done.

As the apostles followed the Holy Spirit’s leading out of bounds and across the Roman Empire, one of the greatest struggles of the early church was determining what should be demanded of Gentile believers.  Did they need to keep a kosher diet?  Should they be circumcised? Should they be treated as second-class, lower tier Christians?  Must they become Jews? After hearing Peter’s testimony, those earliest of Jewish believers in Jerusalem simply rejoiced and decided to follow the Spirit’s lead without any strings attached.  That wide and inclusive welcome became official in Acts 15 when the Jerusalem Council gave its stamp of approval to Paul’s Gentile mission.

Over the centuries, as Christianity expanded and became enmeshed with the political power of empire and nation, we have struggled and sometimes failed to live into those accepting, welcoming, inclusive expectations of the Holy Spirit and the earliest church.  We’ve often wrapped the gospel in a cloak of culture that demands assimilation.  It played out on the geo-political stage from the moment that Constantine had a vision of the cross and sent his legions into battle with that symbol painted on their shields and the motto, “In this sign conquer.”  We saw it as Galileo was forced to recant his scientific findings because they contradicted church teachings.  We saw it as Spanish conquistadors forced indigenous captives to be baptized at the point of the sword.  As a seminary student more than twenty years ago, I saw the devastating impact of forced assimilation first-hand, on Rose Bud and Pine Ridge Reservations in South Dakota where the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church operated government-sponsored boarding schools.

The Apostle Peter might remind us that the Holy Spirit is always way out there ahead of us.  We may want to draw lines and make demands, but salvation always rests in the initiative and power of God alone.  As faithful people, our task is not to insist on a kosher diet or circumcision; our job is not to judge others and insist that they conform to our way of seeing and doing things; our role isn’t to separate children from their families and rob them of their culture. When the Holy Spirit takes us out of bounds, the best thing to do may be to get out of the way, to watch, to listen, to be uncomfortable, to learn, to support, to sit down at the table with folks and break bread.  As Peter so eloquently said, if God gives others the same gift that God gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how can we possibly hinder God?

Healing on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations has come slowly.  Indigenous scholars like Albert Whitehat, Sr. learned again their Lakota language and developed curriculum so that it can be taught in schools.  Addiction, which at its worst troubled 90% of reservation families, is slowly declining.  Indigenous priests, pastors, and directors of religious education are sharing the gospel in new ways.  In the suffering of Jesus on the cross, they see their own suffering.  They know that their experience as an occupied nation, subjected to terrible abuse, is closer to the life of Christ than most of us could ever imagine.  They know that Jesus walks with them.

Shortly after the residential school scandal broke in Canada last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Tribe, announced that the U.S. would be conducting its own investigation into our extensive history of Native American Boarding Schools, about half of which were federally funded but operated by churches.  In 1926, 83% of our Native American children were in residential schools, some voluntarily, some forcibly removed from their homes. Just as in Canada, residential schools have had devastating consequences for Native American communities.

Dzbahe remembers the day in 1953 when her parents made the difficult decision to send her to a residential school and she left her Navajo home.  At the school, her Navajo clothes and moccasins were taken and she was issued a uniform.  Her hair was cut. She was forbidden to speak her language.  Not knowing English or American customs, she was repeatedly punished for not doing what was expected of her.  Even her Navajo name, Dzbahe, was taken away, and she was forced to respond to the new name Bessie Smith. 

This week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report with findings from just 19 of the more than 400 US residential schools.  That report included news of more than 500 unmarked graves of children at those 19 schools.  The commission warns that as their work continues, the hidden deaths of indigenous children will rise into the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. Lord, have mercy. 

Resources:

James Boyce. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 2, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Karl Kuhn. “Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 15, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Brian Peterson. Commentary on Acts 11:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 19, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jonathan Chang and Meghna Chakrabarti. “Stories from Canada’s Indigenous Residential School Survivors” on On Point, July 28, 2021. WBUR Boston.  Accessed online at wbur.org.

Claire Cleveland. “Indigenous Schools Leave a Legacy of Generational Scars” in The Associated Press, August 8, 2021. Accessed online at apnews.com.

Kalle Benallie. “US boarding school investigative report released” in Indian Country Today, May 11, 2022. Accessed online at https://indiancountrytoday.com/news.


Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the brothers and sisters who were in Judea heard that the gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners, and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”


Native American students at the Carlisle Indian School. By Unknown author – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4797733

From Sheep to Shepherd

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “From Sheep to Shepherd” Acts 9:36-43

The noise was deafening.  Widows of every age surrounded me.  Some cast back their heads in ululation.  Others sobbed in lament.  Some pressed upon me the work of her hands, pointing to a finely woven flax tunic, a weighty woolen shawl, or the fine tracery of crimson embroidery threaded along the cuff of a sleeve.  “Help us, help us! Who will help us?” they pleaded.  I looked over to the husband, who sat on a bench in the courtyard, nearly catatonic with grief.

I was still fairly new to this apostle thing.  In fact, I had considered giving up after the resurrection.  In all honesty, I had proven to be a fairly worthless disciple.  I thought I knew it all.  I slept when I should have been praying.  I ran when I was needed to stand my ground.  In the Chief Priest’s courtyard, I had cursed in fear and panic, insisting that I didn’t know the Lord, had never met him, had nothing to do with him.  If the resurrection had convinced me of anything, it was of the greatness of God, the holiness of my Lord Jesus, and my utter worthlessness as a disciple.

In fact, I had returned to my home in Galilee and the familiar work of fishing.  The waves on the water, the heft of the net in my hands, the rise and fall of the boat under sail.  But I had proven to be a failure even at what was my birthright.  Then, in the early morning on the rocky shore with the smoke of the charcoal fire in my eyes and the taste of grilled fish and fresh bread on my tongue, the risen Lord had restored me to my purpose.  “Do you love me?” he asked.  “Tend my flock,” he commanded.  For the love of Jesus, I was trying.

Now if ever there were sheep without a shepherd, these women were it.  Across the Great Sea, the Greeks and Romans do things differently, but here we live by the Old Ways. Our women do not have inheritance rights.  The death of a husband or a grown son leaves a woman at the mercy of a new patriarch, and some are by no means merciful.  That was obvious.  A toothless crone with two canes wailed at my elbow.  A cross-eyed woman with an addled brain babbled for my attention.  An emaciated young mother, with two small children clinging to her skirt, sobbed hopelessly.  A bald woman with a goiter the size of a pomegranate held up an intricately woven kerchief.

From their stories, it was clear that Tabitha – or I should say Dorcas – had been their shepherd.  She had clothed them, fed them, and provided for them from her own purse. Her death was a tragedy for all.  It started with a cough, followed by the spike of a fever.  Her breathing had grown labored, her breath fetid.  Within a few days, she was gone. Now these lost sheep surrounded me with their tears and the ridiculous expectation that I should raise the dead.  They pushed me up the stairs, shoved me into the upper room, closed the door, and continued their non-stop racket.

The room was dark.  I crossed to the window, parted the curtains, and opened the shutters, flooding the room with light and a sea breeze.  Near the window, where the light was the best, stood a loom, threaded with a work in progress. Across the room, the body lay on a bed, shrouded by a woolen pall.  I peeled back the cloth.  Dark curls, like soft clouds, surrounded a kind face with creases left behind by years of smiles.  She wore a simple linen tunic.  Her hands were folded on her chest above her heart and she held an olive-wood cross.  So natural and peaceful.  I placed my hand on hers and shrank back from the cold flesh, inert and lifeless.

I began to pace, as is often the case when I am worried, anxious, or angry.  What was I doing?  Who was I to raise the dead? What would happen when I failed, as I undoubtedly would? I had agreed to tend the flock, but I didn’t sign up for this.  All those expectations of the keening widows pressed in on me. I felt like I was the one wrapped in a pall, a shroud of their lament. I began to hyperventilate. “Feed my sheep?” I wheezed. “Thanks a lot, Jesus.”

“What seems to be the problem, Peter?” I knew that voice better than my own. He stood with his back to the window, his face in shadows. The sunshine, flooding into the room, seemed to shimmer and surge around his silhouette. I stopped hyperventilating.

“Jesus!” I shouted, half-angry, half-relieved. “C’mon. you don’t expect me to raise this woman.  Do you? I can’t do it!  I can’t!”  It may have been my imagination, but the wailing in the hallway outside the room seemed to escalate.

Jesus nodded, as he often did when I stated the obvious. “No, you can’t do it, Peter.”

This wasn’t helping my confidence at all.  I paced some more while he watched. I stopped and pointed at him accusingly, “You could do it!  You raised Jairus’s daughter.  I was there.  I saw her smile.  I saw her stretch her arms up to be held.  How about the widow of Nain’s son, hopping off his funeral byre as if her were embarrassed to be caught napping? Remember, Lazarus?  Three-days-dead and stinking, you called him out of the tomb.  You can do it!  You can do it!  But I’m not you.”

Jesus agreed, “No, you’re not.”

I paced some more.  I couldn’t do it, but Jesus could.  I shot a look at him where he was now leaning with an elbow on the window sill, and I swear, he raised his eyebrows like he does when he is waiting for me to draw an obvious conclusion.  I stopped.

“Are you really here, Lord?”

Now, he was smiling. “Didn’t I promise to be with you always, Peter, even to the end of the age?” 

He had made that promise.  He had even sent his Holy Spirit as a perpetual reminder.  As Jesus pushed away from the window and took a step closer to me, I felt the Spirit ripple within me. It was obvious. I turned away from Jesus and looked over at the peaceful and thoroughly dead Tabitha—or should I say Dorcas?  “I can’t do it,” I said again, “but you can.”

I moved toward the bed.  The sun warmed my back and moved along my limbs. I stepped closer still to the body and my shadow fell across her face.  I raised my arms with power and words of authority that were mine, but not mine, sounded loud.  “Tabitha!  Get up!”

The first thing I noticed was the slow throb of a vein, pulsing at her temple. Next, her chest began to gently rise and fall with the soft swell of her breath. Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn and a hand fluttered up to cover it.  Here eyelids blinked open, once, twice.  “O, Jesus!  You came!” she smiled.

I whirled around to see if the Lord was still behind me at the window. The room was empty.  The curtains fluttered in the sea breeze, the threads dangling from the loom danced in the shifting air.  Beyond the door, the keening of the women was undiminished and someone had broken out a shofar, blowing long, slow, mournful notes. 

I bent down and took the hand of the no-longer-dead woman. She was still clutching the olive wood cross but had kicked off the woolen shroud and was wiggling her toes.  I helped her up. “Sister,” I said to the puzzled Tabitha, “I know some people who will be happy to see you.” 

As I opened the door and guided her through, there was a moment of stunned silence.  Then, mourning shifted to joy.  There were glad shouts of recognition and fervent alleluias.  Tears of joy streamed down jubilant faces. The crone brandished her canes in celebration.  The fool sang a psalm of rejoicing.  The two children danced, hand-in-hand with their mother.  The woman with the goiter could only repeat, again and again, “Glory be to the great God of Israel, holy be His name!”  Arms reached out to Tabitha, touching, hugging, holding.  Tabitha was swept downstairs and out into the streets in a parade of rejoicing that they are still talking about in Joppa to this day.

I lingered in the upper room, leaning against the sill where the Lord’s elbow had rested, watching the celebration on the street below.  I still felt that I was not very good at this apostle thing. Thank goodness that no one had been in the room with me to witness my panic. But I learned that it is not so much about me as it is about Jesus.  Nine times out of ten, I can’t do what is asked of me.  I can’t rise to the expectations that they have for me.  But Jesus can, and even when I walk through the darkest valley, he is with me.


Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.


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