In the Basement of the Bone Museum
“Touch us. Claim us. Take us home. Tell us, we have never forgotten you.” These are the striking last lines from Deborah Miranda’s poem “In the Basement of the Bone Museum” which we read earlier as part of the land acknowledgement (https://whenturtlesfly.blogspot.com/2008/06/in-basement-of-bone-museum.html). Some of you have asked that we change things up with our land acknowledgements to keep it fresh. Poetry offers one approach, especially the words of an Indigenous poet grappling with their people’s stories and histories. I met Deborah Miranda in Virginia where she serves as a distinguished poet in the English Department at Washington & Lee University. This poem and her story focus on the history of her people who were caught up in the California missions that decimated American Indians. The missionaries and priests killed tens of thousands of Indigenous people with sickness and abuse, eradicating culture and language. In response to these atrocities in 2015 Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary, who was complicit in much of the violence against American Indians in the California missions. In fact while fact-checking for the sermon the first news article I came across from CNN includes a brief interview with Deborah Miranda. She says in response to Serra’s canonization:
“My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honoured for in fact his dishonouring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day. It’s not a question of attacking the Catholic Church or attacking Pope Francis. It’s about making sure that the truth is heard and that injustices are not continued on into the 21st century.” (“Pope Francis canonizes controversial saint Serra, Daniel Burke for cnn.com, September 23, 2015).
A fact not to be missed is that Serra and other missionaries like him didn’t kill all the Indigenous people as bleak as that history is. Living writers like Deborah Miranda use their voices and claim space reminding us they are still among us today. Writing poems of lament, grappling with mourning and making sense of an unjust world in which we find ourselves. Indigenous people and settler people sharing space and community.
Repent! and Read Indigenous Authors
Turning to our gospel reading, John the Baptist warns us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven, also translated as the realm of God, has come near. The point of reading Deborah Miranda’s poem and doing a land acknowledgement is not to absolve ourselves of the sins of the church. But rather to confess them and through the grace of God to pledge to be better. This is a wild gospel reading and it can be a challenge to discern the takeaway.
Commentator O. Wesley Allen Jr. says the challenge of this gospel reading isn’t that the message of the gospel is unclear but just the opposite. The message of repentance and the threat of judgment are so apparent it makes it hard to hear. This is where other voices help us get outside our own heads. Get outside the echo chamber of the church.
Here is an Advent gospel for us, hearing John the Baptist’s warning as one of repentance in terms of reconciliation. In terms of taking action in reading Indigenous authors, watching films from Indigenous filmmakers, checking out art from Indigenous artists, etc. This is a place to start and it doesn’t require a lot of initial effort on our part. I have seen the Greater Victoria Public Library at the branch on Broughton has a wall of Indigenous authors right in the foyer as you enter. The good thing about a book is that it doesn’t demand anything from Indigenous people. We’re not demanding they take time to tell us individually their story in order to educate us. And to go a step further we can also buy books, music, tickets to theatre, and art from Indigenous creators and support their livelihoods.
Here is a concrete Advent assignment. Commit to reading one book, attending a concert or theatre production, or engaging with an Indigenous story already available and made public, sometime between today and the end of January. If you need a title I recommend Deborah Miranda’s memoir Bad Indians. If you go to a local bookstore you’ll find local Indigenous authors represented as well.
Eschatology of Grace
Undergirding John the Baptist’s call to repent is an eschatology of grace. Grace is God’s freely given love. Eschatology is often described as the study of end times. More helpful would be thinking about God’s fullness of time. In other words it’s about pointing towards a horizon of God’s realm. As Christians an eschatology of grace is rooted in Christ’s coming.
I emphasize as Christians because Deborah Miranda, who is both Indigenous and Jewish, does not not situate that hope in the person of Jesus. We can find a yearning for grace and fulfillment in the fullness of time in the closing words of her poem: “Touch us. Claim us. Take us home. Tell us, we have never forgotten you.” The bones beg to be remembered, to find a home, to be cared for. To be given purpose, meaning, their identity preserved.
We can celebrate these words without appropriating them for our own use. We can distinguish that in Advent our own yearning towards an eschatology of grace is quite specific as revealed in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s about the divine revelation of Jesus serving as this point of grace. And not just the historical person of Jesus, but the second person of the Trinity, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, through whom God continues granting us grace today in 2019 (O. Wesley Allen Jr.)
In other words this time of Advent isn’t just about John the Baptist calling us to repent. It’s first and foremost confessing we already live and abide in the grace of God. We’re not competing to be the best Christian. It’s not a race. But rather through God’s gift of eschatological grace, Jesus already went ahead, and liberated us. We are set free to serve. Beginning with God’s love for us, repentance frees us to create a better world together with our neighbours.
Ceding Unceded Territory
I want to share a thought experiment, thinking about those bones crying out to be remembered. To find a home. To be loved and recognized. What are ways in which an extension of our land acknowledgment is thinking about creative ways in which we can incorporate Indigenous stories and art into the church, our neighbourhoods, our communities? We‘ve seen examples of this with Indigenous public art at the Breakwater and around town. One name that could be given to this experiment is Ceding Unceded Territory. Whether it’s actual land or at a minimum public and digital spaces where people gather and stories are shared.
To name one example, we will be hosting John Burrows, Indigenous Law scholar at UVic, on January 7, at 7 PM here at Church of the Cross. We are looking at ways to amplify his voice, with his permission, with forms of digital storytelling.
Together we can come up with other ideas. Other ways to build relationship, to do the work, whether reading a book by an Indigenous author, or giving them space and a platform to share ideas.
Wrapping up let us here the haunting words of Deborah Miranda’s poem. Bones calling out to their living ancestors: “Touch us. Claim us. Take us home. Tell us, we have never forgotten you.” Let us help enable that remembering.
This Advent together we enter into a time of repenting, trusting we are wrapped up in God’s eschatological grace and love for each one of us. Amen.