Have you ever had something special taken away from you, forever?
One day when I was in middle school—eighth grade—I purchased the latest issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. I was so pleased to get this particular issue because it featured an article and lots of pictures of my favorite basketball player at the time, Bernard King. (If you’ve never heard of Bernard King, look him up. He was an amazing player for the New York Knicks in the 1980s.) The next day I brought my new magazine to school. And instead of paying attention to what the teacher was trying to teach the class, I sat at my desk reading about Bernard King. But I wasn’t very discreet about it. The teacher saw what I was up to, walked over to my desk, picked up my magazine, and stuffed it on a high shelf in his storage closet. “You’ll get it back later,” he said. But it was never returned to me. I should’ve gotten it back, but I also understand why it was taken away in the first place.
What about having something special taken away permanently, for no good reason at all? That’s what happened many years ago to a young girl named Phyllis Webstad. Phyllis lived with her grandmother in central BC, in the territory of Dog Creek First Nation, and they didn’t have a lot of money. Phyllis was excited to be going away to the church-run residential school, so her grandmother took her shopping for a new school outfit. Phyllis picked out a bright orange shirt with a string lace up the front. On the first day of school she happily put on her new orange shirt, and off to school she went. But as soon as she got to school, she was stripped of what she was wearing and given the school’s own clothes. The orange shirt that her grandmother had bought was taken away—forever. She never saw it again. And that wasn’t the only thing taken away. Phyllis’s identity was stolen from her, and that started a downward spiral in her life that has taken her years to recover from. Even today, many years later, the color orange reminds Phyllis that her feelings didn’t matter; no one cared enough about her; and she was made to feel worthless.
Many of us are wearing orange shirts today. We’re doing this because September 30th is Orange Shirt Day. We remember all the young children like Phyllis who went off to residential schools around this time of year, only to suffer loss—not just loss of favorite clothes, but loss of language, loss of dignity, loss of identity—all because of abuse and mistreatment. Some even lost their lives amid the malnutrition and inadequate health care in the schools. The residential schools are a tragic and damning legacy that we’ve inherited. I say “we” because our wider church institution—the Anglican Church of Canada—oversaw and operated many of these schools. We need to acknowledge this part of our church’s history, to educate others who may not be fully aware of it, and then to work to be reconciled with our First Nations sisters and brothers who have been so hurt by the church. In fact, we don’t really have a choice. The alternative is that we will end up contributing—even if that’s far from our intentions—to the very same attitudes and practices that allowed the residential schools to thrive as centers of oppression.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gets brutally honest and direct. He essentially tells us that we have two paths set before us. There is the path of life and love of neighbor, and there is the path of oppression that leads to hell. Now, here’s the problem we must all face: the Anglican Church of Canada has a history of spending more than its share of time on the path of oppression. How do we get off that path? Well, it’s not simply a matter of skipping over to the other path of life and love of neighbor. No, we must do the work of repair. And that means, according to Jesus, that we must do some pretty drastic surgery. Listen to these words: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…. if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…. if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” Why? Because it’s better to enter life maimed or lame or blind, than to go the way of hell.
Is Jesus really calling for literal dismemberment? At the very least, he’s calling for a radical altering of behavior. Hands and feet and eyes can function as tools of violence, theft, lust, and all sorts of abuse. That’s precisely what kept the residential schools going for so long. Students were subjected to violence and beatings, their language and way of life was stolen from them, and they even became objects of sexual gratification. It’s these kinds of behaviors that Jesus says to cut out. For ourselves at St. Aidan’s, today’s Gospel challenges us to undertake some critical introspection. To what extent do seeds of oppression lie deep within our own assumptions and attitudes about people and the world? Those seeds need to be uprooted and sent to where they belong: to hell.
We often have trouble talking about hell as an actual location. But did you know that in Jesus’ day hell was very much a real place? It was a massive, smoldering trash dump called Gehenna—or the Valley of Hinnom—located just outside Jerusalem. Trash would always be burning and worms would slither around in the stinking mess. It was the most undesirable place to be. This is where Jesus is telling us, on this Orange Shirt Day, to put all the attitudes and behaviors that kept the residential schools going.
Pride. Hatred. Carelessness. Insensitivity. Greed. Selfishness. Ignorance. Violence. Rage. Impatience. Abuse. Lust. Theft. Racism. Self-righteousness. Arrogance. The list could go on and on.…
Let’s put all of these where they belong, in the trash, in hell. If we hang onto them, says Jesus, we’re liable to find ourselves in that place. Let’s do the hard work now, by the grace of God, of surgically removing all that’s bad so that we can follow the path of life, of loving God and loving our each and every neighbor.