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Preaching the Gospel on Stolen Land

(A sermon Rev. McDaniel delivered in the opening session of the April meeting of the Wyoming Presbytery)

As we gather, let us pause for a moment of silence that we may contemplate what it means to worship God on land stolen from the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho Nations and other Native Peoples

Let us pray

To the ONE we call by many names, through whom we seek to understand the divine mystery in many ways, we lift this prayer of thanksgiving that we have been blessed with life paths that have crossed as we engage in a process of trying to understand one another so that we can lessen our prejudices and notions and permit our guesses about who you are to be more educated and more compassionate and loving. Be with us and in us, work through us, that we can, in all of our differences, serve ONE purpose – Yours. Amen

Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; and extend hospitality to strangers.

Each Sunday we open our worship service at Highlands, as we did today with an acknowledgment of the fact that we are preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and worshipping God on stolen land. How could we meet this close to Ft. Laramie without acknowledging that, what happened there 175 years ago is why we are worshipping this afternoon on stolen ground? This ground, as the ground on which our churches were built, was taken by theft through broken Treaties and brute force.

The land on which my church sits belongs to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations. Acknowledging that truth is a way of doing that which Paul urged the church at Rome to do. It’s a demonstration of genuine love, holding fast to what is good, showing honor, rejoicing in hope and extending hospitality to our Native brothers and sisters.

It’s why the General Assembly asked various PCUSA entities to open each meeting with an acknowledgment of the ownership of the land on

which they gathered. We begin to understand what Ricardo meant.

Ricardo is one of nine characters the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay imagines engaged in a dialogue in her 1937 book-length poem “Midnight Conversations.” Much of the conversation centers on God, whether Godexists and God’s influence on human beings. Ricardo, the

agnostic speaks. “Man has never been the same since God died. He has taken it very hard. You’d think,” Ricardo says, “You’d think it was only yesterday. He gets along pretty well as long as it’s daylight. But, the moment it begins to get dark, he goes out and howls over God’s grave.”

Oftentimes, in an effort to make my sermons relevant, I find it useful to go beyond the lectionary. I like to pair Biblical texts with readings from classic or contemporary literature. If asked to suggest readings for the

Lectionary during the Easter Season, I’d pair this pericope from St. Vincent Millay’s poem with Luke’s story of Lazarus and the rich man.

Remember how the rich man feasted sumptuously while Lazarus,

covered with sores, longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man, in Hades, looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, for I am in agony in these flames.’

Abraham said, ‘During your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus, evil things; now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. A great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, send him to my father’s house that he may warn my brothers. If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ Abraham said, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Our Indigenous brothers and sisters see us as the rich man. For them it is “howling over God’s grave,” for Christians to center their faith on a Crucifixion that happened over 20 centuries ago, without acknowledging the role the church played in the atrocities committed

against Native Americans in the last two centuries. It is poignant that Luke names Moses. ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone goes out and howls over God’s grave”

When God hears the cry of the oppressed, God recruits Moses to speak the truth to the most powerful man on Earth and to demand freedom for God’s people. The Israelites had been enslaved for 400 years when God hears their cries. It was 400 years ago, that the colonists landed on Plymouth Rock, beginningthe Native Peoples’ long nightmare.

The Exodus story includes reparations. Exodus 3:21, God tells Moses the slaves will not go away empty handed. “I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with all the wonders which I will do in it; he will let you go and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing; thus, you shall despoil the Egyptians."

My Jewish friend Jason Bloomberg calls it “400 years of back wages”

And asks, “Where do you think they got the gold they used to build that Golden Calf?” The 216th General Assembly affirmed Jesus Christ calls us to repair wrongs done to one another and to work for personal and social reconciliation and renewal” “remembering, restoring, repairing, and redressing injustices for the purpose of reconciliation and human restitution … and acknowledgment of beneficial gains at the expense of others or harm done to others…”

Around the country, faith communities are finding ways to atone for the wrongs done, often with the authority of the church. Last Sunday, Highlands took a step toward reconciliation by endowing a $25,000 fund at Central Wyoming College in Riverton to assist Indian students in

emergencies so they can complete their education. Others are actually deeding land back to the original Indigenous owners.

These acts of grace and friendship arise from making a public acknowledgment about who owns the land and who has benefited from its theft. Just asking the question, “What does it mean to worship God on stolen land,” can be life-giving to the 21st century church.

Here we are, meeting on land stolen from our Native brothers and sisters. Their loss, our gain. May we spend a few more moments of silence contemplating what that means to our ministry?

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