Sermon 9.26.2021

Date: Sept. 26, 2021
American Indian Ministries Sunday
Scripture Lessons: James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Our beautiful church here in Lakewood Estates in sunny St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast of Florida is nested among streets with names that harken back to the Spanish exploration of what is now Florida and the Gulf coast region. Some of you live on these streets. Among them DeSoto, Narvarez, Cortez, and, of course, Columbus. Mixed in with the names of these historic figures are the names of cities and towns in Spain. A myth associated with the Spanish exploration is that the Spanish came to this continent to spread Christianity; to offer life and hope in the name of the church to the native peoples who already inhabited these shores.

Oh, and then there was the gold, the silver, the labor, the land, and the other resources that were of interest to European powers who were actually seeking not so much to evangelize as to increase their power and prestige by conquering additional territories for exploitation. Religion was used to mask the agenda of nationalism and empire. An old, familiar game.

So, how did these particular Spanish explorers who came to these specific shores do at spreading the gospel? Jesus has made it clear to the disciples that they are to help others, to serve others, to heal others, to offer forgiveness, dignity, and community to all. And as we heard today, they are not only to help others, they are not to do any harm to others. There is the reference:

“Rather than make one of these little ones who believe in me stumble, it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.” [Mark 9:42]

The phrase ‘little ones’ was not just a reference to children, it included people new to the gospel. So, it referred to potential new recruits. These verses and the ones that follow about amputation, convey that the disciples, the Jesus followers, the evangelizers, are to be scrupulous in their self examination to be sure that they are being true to the gospel – serving, rather than being served. The gospel agenda is an inversion of common societal values. While to society to be elect or chosen means to receive reward and privilege, Jesus teaches that to be chosen is to embrace service, ministry to the least of these, care and concern for those who are weak and disadvantaged.

So, did those early Spanish visitors who came to these shores offer help and food to the locals? Hardly. They were looking for resources, for riches, for labor and land, that could be exploited for gain. They didn’t come to give, as Jesus indoctrinates his followers, they came to get, to take, to receive. What they gave was disease and violence and hostility not empowerment or assistance as Jesus teaches. So we can’t say that the Spanish were very successful in offering the new life of the gospel to the indigenous population.

And not only did the Spanish not help the indigenous people, they debased the local population. They saw the locals as uncivilized, primitive, sub human. And treated them as such. Yet what was going on here when the Spanish came? There were communities up and down the coast of the Gulf with a population of perhaps 350,000. [Jack Davis, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, p. 57] These inhabitants had a network of communication and cooperation. They made a
system of canals to facilitate travel and transportation. They lived off of the abundance in and around the Gulf shores. And they were thriving. The records of the first European visitors talk about the giants that lived here. The people were taller than the Spanish. And they were strong. Healthy.

In addition, they were not tied down by agriculture and the labors of working the land. Instead, they fed off of the sea and the life along the coast. And they thrived.

Apparently when Ponce De Leon, one of the first Spanish to land here, encountered the Calusa Indians, who lived further south on the Gulf coast, he was greeted in Spanish. [Davis, p.52] These primitive people already knew the language of empire.

And we are told of their living conditions by Jack Davis in the Pulitzer prize- winning book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. Here’s how Davis describes the life of the Calusa:

“For a people to be permanently settled without the requirement of food crops was rare in North America and across the globe — a luxury, in a way. There was no imperative, either, for the Calusa to migrate from hunting ground to hunting ground stalking food, because it came to them. Big fish, little fish, shrimp, sea turtles, crabs, lobsters, manatees, and even sharks, whales, and West Indian seals — it was all easy gathering with spear, net or quick hand. Waterfowl, deer, and plants contributed only slightly to the local diet; all told, marine life supplied more than ninety percent. The Calusa were tall in stature because they were rich in food.” [p. 36]

The indigenous peoples on these Gulf shores were thriving. And while the Spanish accused the native peoples of being primitive and of practicing cannibalism, no evidence has been found by archeologists to support this. In fact, it was the Spanish who ate their shipmates because they were starving and did not realize that the Gulf was a ready banquet. They also ate their horses. When Narvarez came to the shores of Florida, the expedition was fraught with problems including lack of food. One of the crew who kept a record of the expedition “reported that the natives were appalled by the desperate appetite of the cannibalizing strangers.” [Davis, p. 63] The Europeans didn’t seem to associate the robust physique of the Indians with the delicacies and riches provided by the Gulf. So, who was really primitive and uncivilized?

The Spanish, so well ensconced in Christendom, did not seem to grasp the simple message of Jesus – to do no harm, and to provide aid to those who are in need. The way of Jesus is not about personal gain, of power, status, reputation, or wealth. There is no exploitation in the way of Jesus. And even those disciples who were actually with Jesus had a hard time with this as we heard today. The Jesus way is about welcoming those who are least. It is about serving those who are suffering. It is about including those who have been debased and discarded. It’s is not about judging others but about examining yourself and making sure that you are free of offense to the lowly and that you are intentionally reaching out to share the grace and gifts of God to make life better for others. The Spanish Christians who came to these shores did not get this either.

The attitude of the disciples, to judge and exclude the one who was doing an exorcism, also shows us the opportunities missed when we demean and discount others. Earlier in the chapter, we are told that the disciples weren’t able to perform an exorcism. Maybe instead of judging this person who does a successful exorcism, they could have learned something helpful and constructive from the man. The Spanish, instead of treating the Tocabaga Indians who lived in this area and the other native peoples of the coast with hostility, could have learned things from them that would have saved many European lives.

We also can see that the Europeans could have learned something about living in harmony and balance with nature instead of seeking to exploit it.

The Indians were also known for incorporating their spiritual beliefs into all of their daily activities. The Europeans could have learned something about how to integrate faith into all aspects of life. How to live with reverence and gratitude instead of using religion as a tool of empire and colonization – which is in direct conflict with the message of Jesus.

The whole concept of using religion for personal gain is at odds with the way of Jesus. The designation of insiders and outsiders, we and they, the acceptable and the unacceptable – that may serve a political agenda or an economic agenda but not a spiritual agenda. Not a love agenda. Not a grace agenda. And we see this dynamic in many religions of the world and among many people of the world. It happens over and over and over again. And it is still happening today.

So Jesus’ teaching that we heard today is something we still need to hear. Worry about what you are doing. Be self critical. Assess what you are doing to make sure that you are serving, helping others, showing respect and consideration for the least and the lost. It’s always going to be about an inversion. Learning when you thought you would be teaching. Receiving when you thought you would be giving. Being helped when you thought you would be the helper. Being led when you
thought you were leading. Always being open, receptive, to the inversions of Divine love and grace.

There is a horrific legacy of what has happened on this land in the name of Christianity. Not just in this Gulf region but throughout North America. And it did not involve just the Spanish but many European cultures. Portuguese. English. French. Dutch. And others. And as we know, the pursuit of resources and riches led to the decimation of cultures and communities and the killing of millions of people. In a gesture to acknowledge this horror, largely done in the name of Christianity, there is a new trend among churches to regularly acknowledge the native peoples who inhabited the land where the church sits. In our case, that includes the Tocabaga Indians. So we would identify our church as Lakewood United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, FL on land that was originally inhabited by the Tocabaga. It is a way of attempting to tell more of the truth.

And I think we have another opportunity here. We have the street names of all of the Spanish exploiters to remind us of the harm that has been done in the name of our religion. Narvarez was known for being a hollow voiced bully, with a vindictive streak. [Davis, p. 53] He lopped off the nose of a Tocabaga boy and siced dogs on the boy’s mother. Columbus did not discover America. There were people living here and thriving, thank you very much. Hernando De Soto was another bloody tyrant enslaving the indigenous people, spreading hostility, and commandeering land and food all in the garb of civilization – ‘salutes, and banners, music, Masses served by priests in gold vestments, and with proclamations to the Indians,” according to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. [Davis, p. 69]

Those street names can be a constant reminder of the harm that has been caused in the name of Jesus. They can be like that hand that has been cut off to prevent it from sinning. They can be a reminder of what not to do. How not to let our faith tradition be hijacked for power and gain. How not to take advantage of others.

The names of the streets can remind us of the wrong that has been done and can remind us to follow the true way of Jesus: Treating each and every life with dignity. Honoring the image of God in every person not just the ones who look or talk or dress like we do.

These street names can remind us to pursue making amends for the harm caused by those who have gone before us. And those names can be a reminder to be vigilant in creating justice that honors and respects all people as well as the Earth. They can remind us of this history and all we have to learn from it.

In the name of Jesus, may our church truly hallow this sacred ground with remembrance, respect, and reconciliation. May this be our path to redemption and new life as followers of Jesus. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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