Presiding Bishop’s sermon at the Niobrara Convocation

Posted Jun 18, 2012

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached June 17 in Ft. Yates, North Dakota, during the Niobrara Convocation, an annual meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota.

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The full text of her sermon follows.

Niobrara Convocation
17 June 2012
Ft. Yates, ND

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

I’ve been reading a remarkable book about the state of things in the Americas before the first Europeans arrived.  It’s by Charles Mann and it’s called 1491.  In one place he writes about the development of corn – south of here, in what is now Mexico.  Something that looks a lot like modern corn developed very quickly about 6000 years ago[1], probably from an ancestor that looks almost nothing like it.  That ancestor (teosinte) had very small hard kernels, and they didn’t stay on the stalk when they got ripe – they fell to the ground and got lost.  Somebody did a bit of very focused gardening with that ancestor to produce a plant with bigger, softer seeds that stayed together on the stalk, and it seems to have happened in a very short space of time – maybe as little as ten years.  In the same way that the first peoples of North America burned the plains to make better grazing, a people in Mesoamerica husbanded a new kind of grain that eventually transformed this part of the world.  And not just this part of the world, for corn or maize also became a basic foodstuff in parts of Europe and Africa.

People in the highlands of Mexico put seed in the ground, went to bed and got up for several months, expecting those seeds to grow – first the stalk, then the head, then the grain – and then they went in and harvested.  They kept at their selective gardening until they had a crop that was far more fruitful and looked nothing like what they started with.  That’s what Jesus is talking about in this gospel.  Thousands of years later, in another part of the world, Jesus told a story of transformation that is recognizable in places that didn’t hear about him for another millennium after that.  The sacred hoop does include us all!

Where does the kind of trust that encourages productive gardening or breeding better horseflesh come from?  Why do people keep looking or working for a result they haven’t seen yet?  Samuel didn’t really seem to expect to find a king in the youngest of Jesse’s brood, particularly not a mere shepherd boy.  Yet David turned out to be the high point of Israel’s earthly rulers, in spite of his yearning for Bathsheba.  God continues to work remarkable results out of surprising starting material.

That is what Paul means by the confidence in new life that keeps us on the Jesus road.  We keep on because we have a glimmer of what is possible.  That promise gives us confidence, because we’ve already had a taste.  Why do the Lakota and Dakota stay in Christian community, and keep on expecting more of it?  Some of the answers to that question have to do with this very gathering – reworking what God planted here a very long time ago, partnering with the Creator, and continuing to expect more abundant fruit.

Opportunities for that reworking or re-creating come all the time – like responding to an insult with grace, or finding humor in the midst of confrontation.  Sometimes those opportunities produce big changes in the culture.  The winter count[2] we first saw on Friday, emerging from a barrel of shame and confinement as something to be blessed and proudly shared, is a remarkable example.  I can’t imagine a more powerful way to tell the Jesus story to those who don’t know it, than in this gift offered by one who has listened well and met the creative power of the Great Spirit.

There are other surprising crops, like the sun dance that has re-emerged on the rez in a search for healing from the pain of old destruction.  Don Metcalf told us about how it gave shape to the early life of the Niobrara Convocation.  And as Fr. John Floberg said, there is far more congruence between the Jesus story and the story of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota than most people have looked for.  God has been drawing all of his children into deeper and more sacred relationship for a very long time.  Episcopalians say that our part in God’s mission is about reconciling the world to God in Christ – and that has a great deal to do with bringing together parts of the earthly community that seem to be in conflict.  We may not know exactly what the result will be, but our road, our dance, is toward that kind of healing.

Healing and more abundant life always involve some kind of death or sacrifice.  Corn came from the ability to bind the seeds together on a stalk, rather than letting them scatter before harvest.  New life in Christ is born of daily sacrifices.  Sometimes those little deaths are as simple as thinking of another’s need before our own.  They can also be dying to our own over-confidence in the face of another person’s, and inviting dialogue between us.  Out of that comes a new community, a godly fellowship, and a holy people.

The friends of Jesus among the Sioux are working toward the same end as their sisters and brothers who walk a more ancient spiritual path.  God can use the faithful wherever they are found, and if we’re faithful to what Jesus has given us, we will find partners to share in creating a healed world.  We’re invited to have confidence that God will help greater abundance emerge, if we will plant the seeds and expect a surprising harvest.

The people at Pine Ridge are clearly hoping for something surprising when Taizé brothers and young adult Christians gather there in 2014.  The Spirit is working something in that new monastic community beginning to spring up on the Rosebud reservation.  God is doing a new thing in the youth work on the Standing Rock.

God calls us beloved, and makes us a new creation, each morning, in every gathering and act of prayer acknowledging the creator’s active presence.  We are given seed to plant, and then meant to rise and sleep, expecting a surprising and abundant harvest.  This soil has enormous promise, for those who have the confidence to expect greater fruit.  We don’t know what the mature plant will look like, but we can hope that this tiny seed will produce a tree of life for all the birds – Eagles, Red Birds, Two Hawks, Noisy Hawks, and Driving Hawks[3], and maybe even some Fox, Elk, Bear, and Horse people.

The kingdom of God is coming all around us, all the time, yet it takes the patient confidence of a corn farmer to find it.  Expect the children here to grow into vital contributors to the life of this community as adults.  At dawn and sunset, pray that each will be given what is needed to grow and be fruitful.  If we insist that the community support the lives of all its members, and realize that the hoop includes us all, there will indeed be an abundant harvest.  The hoop still needs mending, for we don’t always recognize that all our relations are essential to the health of the whole, yet the Spirit is at work, in the youngest children and wisest elders.  There is promise in each one, even the least likely.  The web of God’s abundance binds us together like kernels on the stalk.

140 years of Niobrara gatherings are built on that kind of expectation.  This convocation will continue to be transformed for centuries of healing service if the gardeners are faithful and confident, planting and partnering with the Creator of plenty.  Small seeds and acts of faithfulness will mend the hoop.

Wakan tankan, bind us together in fruitfulness, to be peace in abundance for all our relations.

[1] Charles Mann, 1491, 2nd ed,  Vintage, NY: 2011.   p 223

[2] This is a pictorial representation of the last year’s history, painted on a buffalo hide.  The one produced by artist Dakota Goodhouse tells the gospel story in 36 separate figures.  We hope for further reporting on it through ENS.

[3] Family names on these reservations


Comments (3)

  1. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    I can understand trying to contextualize the Gospel message in her address, but she doesn’t preach the Gospel. The PB seems to have forgotten that she is speaking to people who are supposed to be Christian. So, why not proclaim Jesus instead of native religious ideas and concepts. This address shows the PB to be weak in understanding the true Christian faith. If she can’t do better than this, she should resign her office and stop proclaiming herself as a follower of Jesus.

    1. Kathryn Rickert says:

      She preaches the Gospel far better, with more substance, depth and faith than most. If only the rest of us were more able to see Jesus in our midst, the way Native people do! It is very sad that this is not heard, grasped and appreciated. That any one would think that Jesus lives in only one culture is truly bizarre.

  2. John D. Andrews says:

    She proclaimed Jesus and talked of the congruence between Christianity and “Sioux” spirituality, specifically mentioning the Sun Dance. She talked of the “Jesus road” and transformation. She spoke as if she was speaking to Christians, using Christian and Native American religious concepts.

Comments are closed.