Sunday, November 14, 2010

Being True to Our Identity

25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28) – Year C (RCL)
Native American Sunday

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Sunday, November 14, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19)

These are the final words of assurance and encouragement Jesus provides to his disciples after a pretty nasty description of things to come. Jesus has just foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also foretells of false messiahs, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues, dreadful portents, and persecution of his followers. We know that the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 AD. And all the other things foretold by Jesus may well have been the reality at the time that Luke was writing his Gospel, and therefore, been reflected in his writings. But this foretold reality is ancient history to us in 21st century America.

What Jesus is talking about is a time of betrayal, condemnation, and persecution that, in his time and the time immediately following his death and resurrection, was because of his name. This betrayal, condemnation, and persecution would be directed toward the followers of Jesus merely because of who they chose to worship, because of who they were. In short, this was all about identity and what can happen to us because of our identity. And in those final words, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” I believe Jesus is telling us that what is of paramount importance is to be true to our identity, no matter what.

Sadly, betrayal, condemnation, and persecution because of identity are not a thing of the past, but have been and continue to be very much a part of our societal struggles and conflicts. I am particularly mindful of this today, as we celebrate Native American Sunday. From the time that Europeans set foot on this continent, interaction and relations with the Native peoples has been characterized by distrust, betrayal, and persecution. Our European ancestors and the government they established have broken treaties originally made with Native tribal nations, stolen Native lands, and forcibly relocated proud peoples to desolate, nearly uninhabitable reservations. For generations, up through the latter part of the 20th century, our government’s policy was to force the assimilation of Native peoples into “American society.”

Our honored guests today include a number of our Native brothers and sisters. Among them are the White Rose Singers from Sherman Indian High School in Riverside. The school was established by the US Government in 1892 to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. The purpose and programming of Sherman Indian School and similar institutions across the country was to force Native children to learn English and to adapt to the American way of life. Use of their own languages was forbidden. Traditional customs and cultural practices were forbidden. Native spiritual beliefs and rituals were forbidden. They were taught that their traditional cultures were inferior and shameful. In short, these people were denigrated because of their identity as Native. As a result, many became, and continue to be, ashamed of who they are.

Sadly, because of such shame, the betrayal, condemnation, and persecution of who we are because of identity is not solely from the outside, at the hands of others, but can be wrought at our own hands. We are sufficiently capable of betraying, condemning, and persecuting ourselves for who we are as well. I want to tell you the story of such a person, of a woman who grew up and lived her entire life ashamed of being Native. Her name was Hazel Nell Hunt, and she was born in 1891 in southeastern Kansas. Hazel Nell was Cherokee. Because of the time in which she lived, she was made to feel ashamed of her Native heritage. But Hazel Nell had an advantage, at least as far as she was concerned, in that she could “pass.” Her features and complexion were such that she appeared to be white. Because she was ashamed of being Native, she used her looks to her advantage and was able to hide who she was, to deny her heritage.

Hazel Nell grew into a young woman, and two days before her 17th birthday, she married a white man – someone who could remove her one step further from her despised heritage. She eventually had six children, five boys and a girl. While the outside world may have thought Hazel Nell was white, her husband and her children knew that she was Cherokee. But because she was ashamed of who she was, and probably to protect her children from the shame of being “half-breeds,” she never taught them anything about their Cherokee heritage. As a result, one of Hazel Nell’s sons, my grandfather, never learned about his Native heritage. And as a result, he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to my father. And he was never able to pass along that part of his heritage to me and my sister. As a result, a valuable and proud part of my family history is essentially lost to me. As a result, I feel a bit incomplete, not knowing my full heritage, not knowing my whole identity.

I don’t condemn my great-grandmother. It’s not Hazel Nell’s fault. Who could blame her? She was just doing what she felt she needed to do in the early 20th century to protect herself and her family from potential persecution because of bloodline and blood quantum. But in protecting herself, my grandfather, and his siblings, she herself effectively instituted the forced assimilation that was the policy of the US government. It wasn’t imposed from outside. Hazel Nell imposed it on herself and her family. To prevent the government from taking away her identity, she stripped herself of that identity. But does that make the damage any less real? Because the reality is that no matter how much she claimed to be white, she was not. She was Cherokee. She knew herself to be Cherokee. She knew that she was living a lie. So how much did her well-meaning actions impact her sense of dignity and self-worth? How much did they impact her soul? There has to be some emotional and spiritual damage in being forced to deny who you are, who you know yourself to be.

I think that is what Jesus was warning his disciples, and us, about in today’s Gospel reading – to be faithful and true to our basic and most fundamental identity. Be it what Jesus was talking about – our identity because of his name, because of being Christians – or any other identity we have, be it based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else – it is part of who we are. It is how God made us. God honors and loves what He has made and how He has made us, and so should we.

We belong to a Church that believes that identity is not an issue when it comes to membership. We are as God made us and that is enough. When our Creator made us, no matter who we are, He declared what He did when He made the first humans – that we are very good. In our primary act of inclusion, at the time of baptism, we vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.” And several times each year, we renew those same baptismal vows, just as we did last Sunday, re-promising to God and reminding ourselves of the importance of respecting the dignity of all, no matter who they are. God respects our dignity. And so are we to do likewise.

Actually, I need to take that back. Identity is an issue. But the only identity that makes any difference to God is our identity in Jesus Christ, our identity as God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. And yes, that image and likeness is red. And it is brown. And it is black. And it is yellow. And it is white. And God honors us and loves us despite our identity, and because of our identity. God loves us precisely for who we are. As such, who we are is not to be hidden, but celebrated.

It has taken many years, but maybe we’re finally beginning to get the message Jesus preached 2,000 years ago. Many of our Native sisters and brothers were forced to assimilate. Many of our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers felt compelled to hide who they were. But no more. That is why we celebrate Native American Heritage Month – to honor our heritage, to honor those who have gone before and paved the way so that today we can freely and openly proclaim who we are, whatever that may be. And that is true for every person in this room, Native or not. For that heritage given us by God is what makes us who we are. And it is our identity in Jesus Christ that gives us the strength and courage to boldly proclaim who we are and whose we are, to claim that which gives us life and gives it to us in abundance. For as Jesus proclaims, “By your endurance,” by being true to your identity, your total identity, “you will gain your souls” and the fullness and richness of life that your identity opens to you.

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