So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sisterhas something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-34)
Good morning! This week is week 6 of our Summer Road Trip sermon series based on the book, America’s Holy Ground: 61Faithful Reflections on our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. So far, we have traveled through Yellowstone National Park, Olympic National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Sequoia National Park. If you have missed one and want to catch up, the sermon videos are all posted on our church facebook page. We also post a written copy on our church website each week in case you would prefer to read the sermon rather than watch the video.
This week, we are traveling to Mount Rainier National Park together! This Park is so well-loved by many in our congregation, we’ve even had a couple members get married there! I love seeing the photos that have been submitted by our congregation and watching the video before the service each week—but I also am very thankful for the descriptions that Barkhauer and Lyons provide in their devotional, like this one:
“Mount Rainier is a truly iconic symbol of the northwestern United States. At over 14,400 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the Cascades, and when Rainier is ‘out,’ you can see it for a hundred miles from every point on the compass…it is also an active volcano! Were it to erupt, which is has done as recently as the 1890s, eighty thousand-plus homes around the cities of Tacoma and Seattle would be vulnerable…It is a wild area, with bears and mountain lions, sudden blizzards, unexpected dense fog, outburst floods, and debris flows. Park information pointedly states that if you hear a loud boom or continued ‘rumbling,’ you should seek higher ground immediately! Its untamed beauty makes it potentially dangerous, yet its allure is powerful.”
They go on to explain that Mount Rainier used to be known as Tahoma by the Salish Indians who lived nearby. The Salish Tribe “…lived in its shadows and sought their daily sustenance in its forests, meadows, and rivers. They revered it for its perceived powers and for the dynamic ways it revealed wonder in beauty and bounty. The mountain gave them water to drink and food to eat. They believe there was something more to the mountain than what they could physically see; its magnificence and spectacle pointed to a presence greater than the capacity of their senses to know.”
I am thankful that the writers addressed the experience of the Salish Tribe in their description of Mount Rainier, because acknowledging the original inhabitants of these lands should be an important part of our conversation about them. I would be remiss to preach this entire sermon series about our National Parks without acknowledging the Indigenous Peoples who made them their home long before the American Government even existed. Today, we have these lands set apart and protected, but at what cost to the peoples who once lived there?
While I was doing research for this sermon, I learned that for at least the last ten years (and probably longer) local Native tribes have been advocating for Mount Rainier’s name to be changed back to one of its original titles—either Tahoma, Tacoma, or Ti’Swaq. This isn’t without precedent, as President Obama used an Executive Order to change Mount McKinley in Alaska’s name back to Denali (its original Indigenous name) in 2015.
The movement to change Mount Rainier’s name back to one of its Indigenous names has not gained the same traction yet, but the National Parks Service does acknowledge the harm that has been done from years of colonialism and violence against Native peoples. For example, under the historical section of the official Mount Rainier website, they address the complications that exist today because of this history. Here is a portion of that statement:
“Mount Rainier National Park is part of the traditional lands of indigenous people who have been here for generations…[they] are the original stewards of this place and we learn from their examples of stewardship and respect for the land.
From the American Indian tribes who gathered resources in the area for millennia to the bustling park that exists on the land today, a wide variety of groups have found meaning and importance in the mountain now called Mount Rainier. All of these groups mapped their values on the landscape and contributed to a broader sense of what the area should be. Though these values were often very different and sometimes conflicted, they are all held together today in a delicate balance by the park. The mountain is a product of its past in more than just a geological sense: understanding the human history of Mount Rainier is crucial to realizing the intricacy of the mountain today.”
According to an article in the Seattle Met from last year, the National Parks Service has attempted to begin making amends to local Indigenous peoples by giving them access to the land for free, and setting aside a campground specifically for their tribe. Mount Rainier Superintendent Chip Jenkins was quoted in the article as saying, “National parks are [here] to preserve our country’s heritage,” so he thinks it’s crucial to emphasize indigenous history by using the historical names of features within the park, providing cultural presentations, and allowing the Native Peoples to offer tribal crafts for sale. It doesn’t undo the harm that has been done, but it is a start towards making amends.
Just as the National Parks Service recognizes and is working to a ddress the horrific genocide and mistreatment that was done to Native Americans in our country, the church needs to recognize the ways it has been complicit in these acts of violence as well.
In fact, our Christian ancestors were more than just complicit—Christianity was used as the reason for why they were justified in conquering Native peoples, seizing their land, and murdering, enslaving, or forcing them to convert to Christianity. These actions were deemed “necessary” by Pope Nicholas in the 1400s by a series of edicts called the Doctrine of Discovery. They were used not only to conquer the Americas but also Africa, Hawaii, and other places.
The Doctrine of Discovery has been used in multiple ways against Native Peoples, and for hundreds of years. The UCC acknowledges that harm on their website, explaining that
“ Theologically, [the Doctrine of Discovery] provided the spiritual rationale for Europeans since the times of the Crusades to conquer and confiscate other lands, including what is now the United States. .. It treated the indigenous peoples as if they were animals; they had no (European) title to the land on which they lived. Thus, the Church justified removing and killing them.
Legally, the discovery concept was written into United States law as a doctrine to deny land rights to American Indians, through the Supreme Court case known as Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. The decision stripped American Indians from the right of their own independence, providing a rationale for taking land away from the indigenous peoples, with the support of United States federal law. As a concept of public international law, it continues to be cited as recently as 2005.”
Our scripture for this morning says that Jesus taught that when we have wronged someone, it is up to us to make amends. We can be thankful that both of our denominations take this command from Jesus seriously. Each have begun taking steps to confess the sin of the Doctrine of Discovery, take ownership of the harm that was and still is being done in the name of Christianity, and make an effort to reconcile with Native Peoples. It would take me a lot longer than a 15 minute sermon to fully explain the history of all of this, but I do want to highlight a few things that both denominations have done to give you an idea of how they are seeking to make amends.
At it’s 2017 General Assembly, the Disciples of Christ passed a resolution called the REPUDIATION OF THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY: A CALL TO EDUCATION AND ACTION, AND SUPPORT FOR INDIGENOUS VOICES IN THE WITNESS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH (DISCIPLES OF CHRIST). Among many other things, this document urged the DOC to enter into a time of self-examination where it would seek to understand the historical trauma of indigenous people and to recognize DOC’s participation in the continuing effects of that trauma. As a part of that work, the DOC committed to encourage its congregations to educate themselves about harm against Indigenous peoples, develop and foster relationships with local tribes, and work with those tribes to seek reconciliation.
The UCC wrote formal letters of apology to our Nation’s First Peoples in 1987, 1997, and 2016. They have passed resolutions that are similar to the DOC resolution I just told you about. They also have committed to standing with Native Americans to fight for and defends the rights of Native peoples, including the protection of tribal lands and water sources.
In 2016, John C. Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the UCC, wrote: “Our debt to Native communities and future generations is enormous. Because God is still speaking in the United Church of Christ, we hear the voice of God in the indigenous people of our continent. They have our support and gratitude for their leadership on behalf of Earth’s ecosystems, and our commitment to stand with them against destruction of their lands.”
I am thankful that our National Denominations are recognizing the harm that has been done to Indigenous peoples in the name of Christianity and are seeking ways to make reparations for that harm. This is important. But it is also important that we take that same call seriously in our local churches. One of the things that made me want to come be the pastor at First Christian Church is your dedication to social justice for all people, and part of that is a commitment to standing with Native Peoples.
Shortly after I began here in May, our Faith Action Committee collected supplies for the local Navajo tribe to help them with their COVID outbreak. I am thankful that that committee is at work, and I am thankful for our congregation’s knowledge of the history of this land.
Since I am new to the Southwest, I still have a lot to learn about how to join the fight for justice for the indigenous people in this area, and your passion for social justice and knowledge of our history is a great resource for me. Even though I’m still learning, I do have a few ideas. We can and should pay attention to what injustices our local tribes care about and stand with them in support. We can stand up to discrimination and racist language when we see it in our local community, and we can continue to gather resources that are needed on the reservations.
Of course, all of this is just a start, and it is our call to do as much as we can to stand in solidarity with the indigenous people of this area. I look forward to learning more from you about ways we can work together to be even better neighbors to the Native Americans in New Mexico.