I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
I hope you had a joyous World Communion Sunday yesterday. We on Presbytery staff had fun putting together resources for World Communion Sunday, and I was gratified to hear from a few churches that they were helpful to you. As I sometimes say in a prideful moment, for San Gabriel Presbytery, we are the world, and the world is us, and this service is a glimpse of that. The timing could have been a little better, though, since we were also preparing for an equally joyous Presbytery meeting, and helping with two major congregational meetings on Zoom and several other tasks. I’m just thankful that we didn’t get evacuated from the Bobcat fire in the midst of it!
Now that we’ve considered Christ’s church gathering at the Lord’s Table all around the world, we might also consider more deeply the land on which God has placed us. Next week, on October 12, we remember what is traditionally called “Columbus Day,” commemorating Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas. More recently, people have also called this day “Indigenous Peoples Day,” raising the fact that people have been living in this land for many centuries prior to Columbus “discovering” it, and that these people suffered due to the expansion of immigrants from Europe.
The more spiritually damaging aspect of this migration was the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the religious and legal construct that had been upheld by United States and international law, justifying claims of ownership of lands that were taken from indigenous peoples. The Presbyterian Church (USA), along with several other denominations, has repudiated this and apologized for our complicity in perpetuating it. Each level of the church is also expected to recognize and show respect for the peoples who inhabited the land before our ancestors settled on it.
In last November’s Presbytery meeting, we acknowledged the people who have lived in the Los Angeles-San Gabriel Valley area, the Tongva people. Utilizing a wonderful resource on Native American Day (which used to be recognized in September, but seems to be missing from our calendar now), we worshipped for reconciliation with our indigenous siblings in Christ, including the Tongva people but also recognizing Taiwanese and Hawaiian peoples, with whom our Presbytery members have roots. Click HERE for a copy of this worship service, in case you would like to use some of the resources or the brief historical overview of the people who have lived in this area, perhaps for as long as 8,000 years.
We know that the question of land rights is an ancient one. The scripture I reference from Joshua 24 is an inversion of the more frequently used description of God’s shalom, the fulfillment of God’s will of justice and peace for all:
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat. Isaiah 65:21-22a
As we know, the book of Joshua chronicles the conquest of the land of Canaan by the people of Israel, which according to the Bible was God’s gift to God’s chosen. Joshua 24:13 is in fact the culmination of Joshua’s report to the people of Israel of God’s care throughout their history, as the basis for their covenant of loyalty to YHWH. The challenge is: what looks like mercy for the people of Israel, was conquest for the people of Canaan. And it has been too easy for later conquerors to justify their taking of native lands as God’s will.
In North America, the conquest of this land has resulted in Native Americans losing their land and true sovereignty, and they have lost countless lives through exposure to foreign disease, expulsion, violence, and intergenerational trauma. Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) reported that the incidence of Covid-19 cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 3.5 times more than the rate of White people. The Navajo Nation has lost more people to Coronavirus than 13 states. I was in a meeting recently, and one of the participants is Native American; she started to list the community leaders they had lost already, and it was daunting. And a few weeks ago, Bong Bringas and I heard of the death of colleague Rev. Cecil Corbett, due to Covid-19. Cecil, a Nez Perce/Choctaw pastor member of Inland Northwest Presbytery in Spokane, was a long-time leader of our denomination and co-writer of the hymn “O God the Creator,” which is in the blue Presbyterian Hymnal, #273 (note that the hymn was meant to be sung to the tune “They’ll Know We Are Christians”).
There are different times when a church might recognize the peoples whose land we now inhabit; I often think of this as part of the November Thanksgiving season. My hope is that as we seek Christ’s realm of justice and peace, we seek that justice and peace for all peoples. And as we consider the ways God has given us so much privilege and power—over the rest of Creation and even over other less-resourced peoples—we use this privilege and power in a way that Christ might want us to do. May we add our efforts to God’s will of shalom for this world, a shalom where all are fed, all are respected, all are free to live and work in God’s vineyards together.
In Christ’s peace,