LAKEWOOD UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
2601 54th Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga
Date: March 26, 2023
Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45
Sermon: Out of Control
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The fabulous novel, Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver, a sequel to The Bean Trees, features a Cherokee lawyer named Annawake Fourkiller, who represents the Cherokee nation. At one point in the novel, Annawake describes some of the horrors of the Trail of Tears to a Euro-American character in the story who didn’t learn much about that episode in American history when she was in school. Here’s the conversation between Annawake and Alice:
“Have you ever heard about the Trail of Tears?”
“I heard of it. I don’t know the story, though.”
“It happened in 1838. We were forced out of our homelands in the southern Appalachians. North Carolina, Tennessee, around there. All our stories are set in those mountains, because we’d lived there since the beginning, until European immigrants decided our prior claim to the land was interfering with their farming. So the army knocked on our doors one morning, stole the crockery and the food supplies and then burned down the houses and took everybody into detention camps. Families were split up, nobody knew what was going on. The idea was to march everybody west to a worthless piece of land nobody else would ever want.”
“They walked?” Alice asks. “I’d have thought at least they would take them on the train.”
Annawake laughs through her nose. “No, they walked. Old people, babies, everybody. It was just a wall of people walking and dying. The camps had filthy blankets and slit trenches for bathrooms, covered with flies. The diet was nothing that forest people had ever eaten before, maggoty meal and salted pork, so everybody had diarrhea, and malaria from the mosquitoes along the river, because it was summer. The tribal elders begged the government to wait a few months until fall, so more people might survive the trip, but they wouldn’t wait. There was smallpox, and just exhaustion. The old people and the nursing babies died first. Mothers would go on carrying dead children for days, out of delirium and loneliness, and because of the wolves following behind. . . .
Alice uncrosses and crosses her arms over her chest, understanding more than she wants to. She know she is hearing the story Annawake has carried around her whole life long. . . .
“They figure about two thousand died in the detention camps.” Annawake says quietly. “And a lot more than that on the trail. Nobody knows.” . . .
“When I was a kid, I read every account ever written about the Trail of Tears. It was my permanent project. In high school Civics I read the class what President Van Buren said to Congress about the removal, and asked our teacher why he didn’t have us memorize that, instead of the Gettysburg Address. He said I was jaded and sarcastic. . . .
“Well. What did President Van Buren say?”
“He said: ‘It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the removal of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi. The measures have had the happiest effect, and they have emigrated without any apparent resistance.’” [Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven, pp. 358-359]
As a side bar, let me point out that we can share this quote from this book because we are a church and the state can’t tell us what we can and can’t read or teach. We still have some semblance of separation of church and state.
So, when I heard this description of the Trail of Tears, I had to turn off the audio book for a while just to let it sink in. I had to recover from the recounting of such trauma; to process the horrors that we have the capacity to inflict upon one another as human beings. And then I had to find out some more about the Trail of Tears. In fact, it is thought that some 60,000 people died. Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee, reflects, “Although it is so crucial for us to focus on the good things — our tenacity, our language and culture, the revitalization of tribal communities — it is also important that we never forget what happened to our people on the Trail of Tears. It was indeed our holocaust.” [Essential Native Wisdom, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi, p. 95.]
When I was younger, I used to be able to just pass over something like Kingsolver’s description of the Trail of Tears, slightly disturbed but also feeling a remove from such a story because in 1838 all of my relatives were in Europe. We were not here in this country, so I would reason, it wasn’t our fault. We had nothing to do with it. But now, thanks to things like critical race theory, I know that I, as a person defined by my culture as white, have benefitted from what was done to the Cherokee and other tribes. And from slavery and its legacy, which, again, I used to see as something that did not involve me because our people were in Germany and Italy, thank you very much.
But now I see that as a human being, the Cherokee and those who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, are my people because we are all one people, one race. And the people who forced the Trail of Tears to proceed are also my people. So, I had to stop when I heard that part of the book.
And, yes, the Trail of Tears is horrific. And so is the Holocaust. And that did involve my relatives. And slavery and the Middle Passage and its continuing aftermath – these are also horrific. And there are many other terrible things that we have done to each other, and are still doing to each other, as a human family.
But a message of the Bible, and certainly of the two stories that we heard this morning, is that God is more powerful than all of the havoc and evil we can dish out. There is a power, Divine Love, present in the world working for life, for justice, for healing, and for good, that is stronger than the worst we can imagine. It is the power of love and life. And it cannot ultimately be thwarted.
Now, if there are 30 people in this sanctuary, then there are probably many more than 30 images and metaphors for God among us. There are many ways of thinking about and describing that which is eternal and fundamental and inviolable. Maybe we associate the letters g-o-d with a divine spirit somewhere working for our good. Maybe we think of God as a benevolent dictator somewhere. Maybe we think of God as a light within us; a light of love. Maybe we associate God with the life force. Maybe we think of God as a genie waiting to help us. Maybe we think of God as a human construct created to give us a way of talking about things that are ultimate and universal. However we may think about God and envision and imagine God, the stories we heard today remind us that God is about the perpetuation of a primary reality of life and love and goodness.
In Ezekiel, we hear of the prophet speaking words of hope to a people who, like the bones, are devastated, torn apart, separated – from one another, from their purpose, and from their God. But the story tells of God’s plan for the community to be restored to life, a re-creation of the people who will bless all the people of the world as they embody the justice and compassion of their God.
And the story of Lazarus tells us that the reality of God embodied in the life of Jesus, a reality of justice and compassion, is stronger than death. The reality of God is a story of life and wholeness, and it cannot be eliminated or eradicated. Hard as we may try.
In describing the aftermath of the Trail of Tears, William Hensley, a Cherokee of the 20th century tells of the challenges of creating a new society: “For Cherokee families moved helter-skelter by government edict in the 1830s from their original homelands east of the Mississippi to the raw, wooded rolling hills and grass-covered plains of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), it was a scramble for survival. Everyone had been forced to start over from scratch, accumulating enough tools and equipment for clearing the lands to construct new homes, start subsistence gardens, acquire and raise food for family and animals. But more difficult was the re-establishment of a sense of community, the restructuring of a shattered culture, and the invention of new ways of being — social, economic, and spiritual.” [Essential Native Wisdom, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi, p. 23.]
New beginnings are daunting but they also hold promise. And the Bible conveys that promise: The possibility of a new reality that is a more true reflection of the nature of a God of universal, unconditional, eternal love.
But we must also see that life in God, the reality of God which cannot be vanquished, is always a threat to those who covet their human power and authority. To those who are benefitting from the way things are. To those who think they have some say so in defining reality. The wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable love of God can be threatening to those who prize their human power and control like the religious authorities in the story of Lazarus.
Now some of us are utterly disgusted and discouraged by what we see going on around us today. I attended an event this weekend where I had the opportunity to talk with a recently retired psychiatrist. And he said, life is more distressing now than it has been, certainly in our life times. Well, we see our values and our assumptions and our rights not just dying but being outright killed. And we are seeing hope dry up as alienation inundates us.
But we know that the power of Divine Love, the love we see in the images offered by Ezekiel and the legacy of Jesus, the power of that love is ultimate and infinite. That love can overcome the worst horrors humanity can concoct. Love will prevail. Not religious authority. Not theological tenets. Not a creed. Not the economy. Not the culture. Not the ‘enemy,’ however defined. Not political dogma. Those things will not prevail. They are fleeting. The reality of God, the eternal manifestation of Divine Love, that is what will prevail. That reality is stronger than greed, selfishness, violence, vengeance, hatred, and even death.
Notice in Ezekiel, we are told that the bones were very dry. Scattered on the battlefield. Then we are told of the presence of the spirit of God. And there is a rattling. And the skeletons come together. Then the sinews connect the bones. Then flesh clothes the bones. And finally breath, ruah, the divine spirit, blows life into the nostrils and lungs of the reconstructed earthlings. It is a process. It takes time. From the horror of devastation to the re-creation of sustainable life. But life prevails. And it is beyond our control. And, yes, it takes time, and transformation, and change, and we don’t like to be patient. It can be so much easier to sit in self pity and blame. And to be victims of those who think they have the power of life and death over us. Those who are benefiting from power arrangements that damage and degrade and harm others. But our faith story tells of love that frees new life. Where we are no longer held in bondage to fear or the tyranny of the self. Where we are no longer captive to hopelessness, greed, hunger, poverty, and degradation.
Lisa Pivec, Director of Public Health for the Cherokee Nation, explained the outlook of the Cherokee nation which it has sought to maintain in its new configurations since the Trail of Tears. This description of the nature of the Cherokee was offered in 2020 as the Cherokee faced the threat of covid: “We have to come together as one people. We have to think about others. And that’s something that Cherokees do. And that’s how we live is collectively and understanding that what we do and how we live impacts others. Don’t ask, what are my rights? Ask, what are my responsibilities?” [Essential Native Wisdom, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi, p. 110.] How beautiful that the Cherokee are able to try to maintain that fundamental core underpinning in this society of extreme individualism and self absorption. It is another testimony to the power of Divine Love: New life is possible. And life and love will prevail.
Our faith is about life, full and free. A life of joy and abundance and community. Compassion and commitment to the common good. Despite what we do to each other, the problems we make for ourselves, and the way we may treat each other, our God is a God of life and love with power greater than the worst we can dish up. And the image of that God is indelibly imprinted within each one of us. We need to be reminded of this as we come to the ending of the Lenten season and approach Holy Week where we remember the stories of the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
We close with a Cherokee prayer particularly fitting for Lent as we seek to re-turn our lives to God:
“O Great Spirit, who made all races, look kindly upon the whole human family and take away the arrogance and hatred which separates us from our brothers [and sisters].”
[Essential Native Wisdom, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi, p. 60.]
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.