John 15: 9-17
Land, Language, Legacy

“Land, language and legacy”

Northwood United Church

Easter 6, May 9, 2021

John 15:9-17

Rural life and Christian Family Sunday

Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Jeffery  


Prayer of illumination: God of all peoples and places, hear my prayer, that Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, the Holy Spirit moves.                                                                      /adapted from the late Don Grayston.

“I do not call you servants any longer … I have called you friends,”

In the Gospel of John Jesus says V. 15  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

In the Gospel of John Jesus says V. 15  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.   There is a shifting of identity in this statement … from servant to friend.   In some older versions of the Bible the word “servant” was translated “slaves”.

V. 15  I do not call you slaves  any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.   In the original Greek the language is strong, you are no longer “slaves” but friends. In Ancient times to be a “slave” of a good master was not necessarily demeaning. It could even be a title of respect.  But a “slave” was not on the same level as a friend. A slave’s status obligated him to support a master through difficult times,  a “slave” follows orders without comprehending.   but a friend would do it freely, for reasons of mutual commitment and affection. Jesus speaks a lot about love. The love Jesus is naming is what we call agape love.  In English we have only one word for “love” which carries many possible nuances. Agape love  is a love of self-sacrifice for the one loved. It is the love most practiced by Jesus.  Agape love “does not attempt to possess or dominate the other”. This love is a virtue. 

The variance of translation can inform how we think of families, friends and relationships with other peoples.   Making friends can happen  through genuine curiosity, compassion, and unconditionally being  present to others. The ancients viewed friendship as the crown of life, the fulfillment of all that is most distinctively human.  Building relationships outside our comfortable social and religious groups is not always easy.  We moderns all too often assess friendships’ value primarily in terms of its usefulness for achieving material ends (friends as business contacts), or for minimizing boredom and loneliness (friends as people to kill time with).  The coin of friendship has been continuously devalued by being applied to lesser forms of relationship. Relationships between acquaintances or associates involve little intimacy, trust, commitment and loyalty. Friendships may grow out of these more casual relationships but are not the same. Unfortunately, true friendships are  rare. Think of true friendship. How happy and carefree, you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear confessing any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress. How joyful to entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans. What is more delightful than to unite spirit to spirit and make one out of two with neither fear of boasting nor dread of suspicion? A friend’s correction does not cause pain.  A friend’s praise is not flattery.   A wise man once said, “a friend is medicine for life”. No remedy is more powerful, effective, and distinctive in life than to have someone to share your every loss with compassion and your every gain with congratulation. According to Paul in Galatians 6:2, friends carry each other’s burdens. Knowing Jesus is a relationship so intimate that he carries his followers’ burdens. He brings them joy. He walks beside them. Genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking, and enjoying that neighbor in particular is  what Jesus calls us to strive for.  It is one thing to say you love humanity, whatever their religion. It is quite another to learn to love that specific neighbor with their specific religion. For many American and Canadian Christians, being friends with Jesus tends to be personal. Jesus is my friend. He carries my burdens. It is easy to focus on how the relationship benefits us and relieves our burdens, but there is more to friendship with Jesus than the blessings we receive. Knowing Jesus as a friend is a source of strength that impacts all our relationships in community and society. 

Jesus builds Christian community across cultural, social, and ethnic divisions.

In most cultures, the idea of friendship is a powerful statement of relational identity. In Indonesian Batak culture, for example, it is said that the loss of a friend is worse than the loss of one’s own mother. Traditional Russian culture assumes it is better to have many friends than much money. In Confucian tradition, friendship is one of the basic relationships of society. A cross-cultural perspective on Jesus as friend says a lot about the meaning of community. Friendship always goes both ways. It requires mutuality. It involves give and take. To befriend Jesus means carrying the responsibilities of friendship that he carried.  In the context of worldwide community, being friends with Jesus is hard work. When followers of Jesus walk beside him, he leads them in directions they would rather not go, into neighborhoods they would rather avoid, and to meet other friends of Jesus they might not normally know. As the Scriptures and history show, to be a friend of Jesus means loving others just as he does. Remarkably, friendship is one of the terms God uses to describe the relationship God desires with us. Friendship is therefore no ordinary relationship. New friends can come into our life . . . Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, First Nations people, New Agers, and others—including lots of atheists and agnostics. I know you as a church community recognize the multicultural nature of Surrey as host of  an Interfaith Harmony Week event in February of 2020. I want to focus for a while on Indigenous neighbours as friends.

Land, Language, Legacy

I want to focus this part of my reflections on three marks of identity: Land, Language and Legacy. In my welcome greeting this morning I acknowledged the language of and land upon which we live and work.  This acknowledges that it is not our own, but the traditional land of various First Nations Peoples. To the best of my ability, I used First Nations language to name these people in the words they spoke and some still speak. Preservation of languages is a struggle. Naming and language are an important part of identity. During Lent this year a group of people from my area did a five-week book study on “21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act”. It is not my intent to reprise the book here, but rather to invite your reading and discussion on the subject. Near the end of the book (p.166-167), there is a section “21 Things You can do to Change the World”. It is a challenge to action to all of us. Two things that I can do through my role as a minister are 12. Learn the Indigenous names for where I live and work . 21. Encourage family and friends to commit to helping (me and you) change the world. Studying the Indian Act makes it abundantly clear that when Europeans came to the land we now call Canada, they thought the land was vacant, and available for claiming. They also thought the people already there were of lower status and could be treated essentially as “slaves”.  The European concept of land includes the idea of ownership. Indigenous peoples’ concept of land is gift from Creator to be used, honored and cared for, for use by all (created and not created). Indigenous people give thanks for the land and its resources whenever they occupy it and use it.  They give thanks to a tree for giving its life to sustain the people. They give back first harvest.  As an example, the first salmon of each season is honored in ceremony and given back to the spirit of the river. The spirit of the salmon is thanked for giving its life to sustain the people. A recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling (April 23) underlines the importance of land. The court agreed that the Sinixt people engaged in hunting, fishing and gathering in their traditional territory in the Arrow Lakes well before and after first contact in 1811.  Hunting is how they practice their culture. Their very identity is bound up with their territory, which stretches from Nelson to Revelstoke. The Sinixt said they lived in this north-south valley prior to the arrival of missionaries, miners, settlers and smallpox that pushed the Sinixt out of the West Kootenay region of B.C.  Some moved south to the U.S., taking up residence on the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation in the late 1800s.  Not being able to use their traditional lands in B.C. has taken a tremendous toll on multiple generations of Sinixt people. The very identity of these people is tied to the land and their use of the land.   Another system of identity erasure was the Residential School system, the residual effects of which persist today. Much of the Indian Act involved the establishment of Residential Schools. The system of residential schools which devolved from 1755 to 1996 tried to dominate children and their families.  Residential schools treated First Nations spirituality as pagan, not as a legitimate “true” religion. The book “21 things …” especially draws attention to the damage done by residential schools, the attempt to shutdown cultural practices and ceremonies and to destroy family itself. Using the words in the gospel of John residential schools treated Indian children as “slaves” and kept knowledge from them and their parents.  Residential schools were run in most cases by churches (including the UCC and its predecessors) on behalf of the government of Canada.  Residential schools came from an era (colonialism) where Christianity was considered the ONLY religion of value.  Any other spiritual knowledge and practices were not worthy. The attitude of churches have changed over time. Apologies and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are important steps.  During the TRC hearings we (individual members of the UCC and others) as listeners walked with Indigenous people as they told their stories of pain. New UCC clergy trained at the Vancouver School of Theology have opportunities to understand indigenous spirituality through Indigenous and Inter-religious Studies programs.   These changes need to filter down to the congregational and community level. Knowing each other “as the Father knows” is important to identity and relationship. Study is one way of making friends across faith boundaries.  Other ways of making friends across faith boundaries and into Indigenous communities can take the form of  invitation to companionship over a cup of tea or coffee. Asking questions. Displaying interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs, and their stories. Learning why they love what they love. Making friends with indigenous people requires entering their world (perhaps through native friendship centres), and welcoming them into our world, without judgment. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocation; if not, welcome their non-reciprocation. Experience conviviality.  Connect – don’t just consult. Pass the mic at meetings.  Faithful action and service flow from the repeated habit of listening.  Listening to our neighbours in need of healing we may hear God speaking through them. Join the movement towards recovering common good together.   First Nations culture considers seven generations the time for learning and healing and for passing on a legacy.  Seven generations may reach back into the past, or look forward to the future, or straddle the present. We non-Indigenous people may think knowing our grandparents and great grand parents, gives us a good “handle” on a legacy from them. First Nations people tell stories that have been gifted to them for many more generations – seven generations is a way of symbolizing the long timeline of legacy.  Their stories are unique to each First Nation but often have a common thread.  However, we do a disservice to First Nations Peoples when we fail to recognize the plural of First Nations.  Each tribe, band or clan has its own uniqueness. Thinking of all First Nations as one is a somewhat milder version of Indian Act thinking. For non-indigenous people legacy rather than stories is often material goods.  But what do you most treasure?  For me, the legacy from my parents includes the usual material goods – furniture from the farmhouse, china from my mother’s dining room, board and card games we enjoyed as children, records that we played during Sunday dinners home from university, and the tuneless whistling of my dad as he worked.  Now in cluttered houses it is the legacy of story that is most treasured and helps me empathize with the culture of story in Indigenous people. 

Jesus keeps reaching out to the other

I have asked you to consider our indigenous neighbours. I have asked you on this Christian Family Sunday to spread your perception of family and friends wider.  It is what Jesus modeled for us. Part of our history as church and communities of faith, is the step by step walk with the risen Christ. The Jesus  who  keeps reaching out to the other, keeps calling those inside to be open to those still outside. We are a people of privilege. We may feel threatened by attempts to close the gap or level the “playing” field between ourselves and those of lesser privilege. In doing this leveling we need consider that their level playing field may not be the same as our own. We need to recognize that Indigenous peoples value their culture and practices and want to be able to live in their ways.  Accommodation of different worldviews is part of the mutuality of friendship. It is often a struggle. As European settlers and First Nations peoples, traditional Christians and those of other faith traditions, and even just individual brothers and sisters at odds with one another, coming together in openness we hear the voice of Jesus. Walking step by step the whole community of God’s people in the world is strengthened and enriched. Friendship, agape love, is mutual.  It goes both ways. When we accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever, a key unlocks a most precious gift in us, love for others, and toward God. Simply to love is its own reward. One truth surpasses all: friendship consists of the love God and others and knowledge of God, According to Jesus in the Gospel: I shall no longer call you servants but friends” [John 15:15].     AMEN