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Joshua 8.10-23

Ezekiel 18.1-9

Difficult Histories

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

My grandfather liked to tell a joke about the time he was a schoolboy, and his teacher taught the class a rhyme to help them remember the year Columbus landed in the New World.  “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  The next day his teacher called on little Johnny – all my grandfather’s school jokes featured little Johnny - to see if he could remember what year Columbus discovered America.  Johnny stood proudly beside his desk and replied, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus sailed the deep blue sea.”  While it was only a joke, I do think the story serves as a good illustration of the dissociative ambiguity contemporary culture currently experiences when we remember the escapades of Christopher Columbus.  For generations, particularly generations of Italians like my grandfather, Columbus was an honored and celebrated explorer whose courage and persistence opened up new trade and ocean routes for Europe.  But times have changed, we have a broader and deeper understanding of both the intended and unintended consequences of Columbus’ voyage, and we are left to wonder just how much his feat deserves applause, and how much deserves reconsideration.  History seldom presents us with unambiguous and time-tested lessons, and on this Columbus Day / Indigenous People’s Day weekend, we have the opportunity to revisit and readjust our perception of our difficult histories.

Earlier this week Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head a cabinet agency, announced an expansion of a National Park Service historical site dedicated to the massacre by US troops of more than 200 Native Americans in what is now southeastern Colorado.  The site commemorates the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho citizens, most of them women and children, by a volunteer US Cavalry regiment.  On November 29, 1864, troops swept into a sleeping encampment of roughly 750 Native Americans along Sand Creek, killing more than 230 people.  It is easy and relatively comfortable for us to talk about the relocation of Native Americans as the nation pursued westward growth, but as soon as we begin getting into the details, when the actual history becomes clearer, we begin to wince and wonder at the gruesome nature of it all.

Did anyone wince and wonder about this morning’s story from Joshua?  I know I did.  When the deadline for this morning’s bulletin came and went, and I still hadn’t decided which of the many stories of the Canaanite conquest to read from the book of Joshua, it is because I was caught on the horns of a dilemma:  which story or stories can I read that do justice to Israel’s difficult history, but that won’t make us recoil at the “escapades” of Joshua and Israel, not to mention the God who led them, and just what they thought they were doing during the massacre of Canaan’s inhabitants.  Generally speaking, when the church talks about God’s vow to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, we read it like a good thing, right?  Finally, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, forty years after they escaped a life of slavery in Egypt, Israel will finally have a home of her own.  What we oftentimes forget though, is that Canaan, the Promised Land, was already populated, and if Israel were to take it as their own, well, that population had to be either relocated or disposed of.  You know, like the American westward expansion.  So one difficult history is layered upon another, and there is no comfortable way out.

Most of us have heard about the battle of Jericho, some of us have even sung songs about it:  “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho…”  We remember how Joshua and his army marched around the walled city once a day for six days, and then on the seventh, marched around it seven times, blew the trumpets, and the fortress walls fell, and Israel took the city.  What we may not remember, however, are the gory details:  “As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight into the city and captured it.  Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword of all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys… [then] they burned down the city and everything in it.”  I confess I don’t recall singing about that part of the story in Sunday School.  And it wasn’t just Jericho either.   In Joshua 11 we read how the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites and Jebusites joined forces against Joshua and the armies of Israel, only to lose their lives because God was on Israel’s side:  “And Joshua took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death… For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord commanded Moses.”  And we heard a few minutes ago about the ambush against the people of the city of Ai.  When we think of the Promised Land, we often think of a land that flows with milk and honey, as though Israel waltzed right in and the people of Canaan somehow disappeared and everyone lived happily ever after.  But history is not that comfortable.  Thousands died a gruesome death, and on multiple occasions, the Bible tells us, God not approved, but was driving the bus.

And the irony of it – or perhaps, the scandal of it – is that even though Joshua seems to tell us that at the end of the day Canaan was liberated and Israel lived a long and prosperous life, you turn the page to the book of Judges, and discover that the battle was far from over, the war was not easily won, and we read of even more warfare, and purging, and massacre and death of both soldiers and civilians.  A close reading of the book of Judges dispels once for all the myth of the Promised Land.

Several years ago, when we took our youth on the mission trip to Simply Smiles in La Plant, South Dakota, we worked for a week among the Lakota Sioux of the Cheyenne River Reservation, whose emblem graces the back of our bulletins this morning.  It was a first time for all of us, working among a Native American population, and the kids had a great time, both our own and the kids on the reservation.  It wasn’t until the middle of the week, though, that we began to learn the story of the tribe’s forced relocation from a land that gave them everything they needed to live, to this rather desolate place in the crook of the elbow of the Missouri River.  And as we learned more, Lynette and I could almost see the scales fall from our young people’s eyes and they began to wonder how our own nation could be so cruel and callous toward a people who were Americans before any of our ancestors ever reached these shores.  If you were in church the day our mission team talked about that trip, you heard some of that rude awakening and eye-opening our young people experienced, and, to their credit, the shock and alarm in their voices that such atrocities could occur in the name of our nation.  But one of the things it did for them, I think, was to help them understand why their presence in La Plant that week was such a rare and precious gift.

And this, I think, is part of our motivation.  We cannot right the wrongs of history all by ourselves anyway, but we can still make a difference. I asked Pat to read that passage from Ezekiel this morning because it reminds us that we are not necessarily culpable for the sins of our ancestors.  There was saying common to ancient Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” meaning that the sins of the parents accrue to their children.  But God said, “this proverb shall no more be used by you;” in other words, if it was ever true, it is not any more.  What is true, God reminds us, is that if we are righteous, if we give bread to the hungry and clothe the naked, if we steer clear of iniquity and execute justice, then God blesses us and we are a blessing for others.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge past wrongs.  I think Pope Francis got it right when he made a penitential pilgrimage to Canada this summer to officially apologize for the role of the Roman Catholic church in the forced removal of indigenous children from their homes, placing them in church-run, government-funded boarding schools in order to assimilate them into Christian Canadian society.  The physical and emotional abuse those children suffered was every bit as horrendous as the terrors American settlers and soldiers inflicted on our own indigenous people.  The Pope could have assigned the blame on long-dead ancestors, or issued a proclamation from the safety of the Vatican.  But the fact that he traveled to deliver an in-person confession of culpability recognizes that, in the words of Ezekiel, while the children may not be responsible for the sins of their parents, we still bear the responsibility for justice and righteousness.  The Pope stepped up to the plate on that one, and while some say his apology could have gone further, for the Roman Catholic Church, even incrementalism can be a giant step forward.

And so I think we can acknowledge the sins of our ancestors without condemning Columbus to the ash heap of history.  You may disagree with me, and if you do I certainly respect that.  What matters is that moving forward we do our best to right past wrongs.  I’m sure the timing is coincidental, but did you read this week how the first Native American woman astronaut launched into space on Wednesday?  Marine Colonel Nicole Aunapu Mann made history as she was lifted to the International Space Station.  Mann is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, and is the Mission Commander.  “(I hope it) will inspire young Native American children to follow their dreams and realize that some of those barriers that… used to be there are being broken down,” she said.  “Any time we are able to do something that is a first, or wasn’t done in the past, it’s so important.  It is so important [our children] have these opportunities.”

Even when their parents have eaten sour grapes, may we so live that our children learn from our mistakes and create a more just, a more righteous world.


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