St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Proper 18 / Year C / Track 2
In her powerful and highly anticipated novel The Seed Keeper, the most recent selection for our Thursday Book Group, author Diane Wilson introduces us to a Dakhóta woman, Rosalie Iron Wing, struggling to live according to the traditional ways and teachings of her people, as an exile of sorts. A product of the foster system, without family to care for her, she chooses a marriage of convenience to a struggling white farmer along the Minnesota River valley and thus ensues a tale of becoming and identity, the challenges of being who she is among a people and a world at odds with who she was raised to be. As the story unfolds we see her slowly reclaiming her indigenous heritage, the teachings left to her by her father before his death, and struggling to raise a son to understand the land, the plants, and the seeds they give, as a gift and a trust, something to be stewarded and cared for, from generation to generation. Readers discover and learn of the family history how Dakhóta people, forced off their land, and removed to concentration camps, often had difficult choices to make. Her forebears, women in her family, hastily sewed the seeds of their crops into the hems of their skirts, taking these with them on their tragic journey into exile, to ensure that wherever they were going, they might be able to plant and harvest food for survival. She learns what it means to be a seed keeper. As she lives on the farm, raising food from her garden for her family to eat, she renews this practice of keeping the seeds, saving enough each season, of the best, to be planted anew in the spring. One night, a gust of wind through an open window blows a spark onto the kitchen table and a fire is lit in their home. As she and her husband react to the danger, they spring to action. He will get their son to safety, she assumes. She will grab some of the most important items to save. She saves the seeds. Arriving in the yard she realizes he does not have their son, and he realizes she does not as well, and rushes back in to save him. Spoiler alert, for those in the Thursday book group, all ends well – the home, the child, and their possessions are saved. But the marriage has taken a blow. Her husband is incredulous that she would choose the seeds over the boy. Though it was an honest mistake in the confusion of the moment, she is struggling to make sense of the snap decision. Later a friend, another Dakhóta woman, and a water activist, comforts her.
“‘You can believe this or not,’ Gaby said, choosing her words carefully. ‘But there are times when women have to make hard decisions, choices that are sometimes unforgivable. We have to see beyond and be prepared to do whatever is needed to save our people, even if it breaks our hearts. My grandmother had a soul of iron from what her life cost her. It takes courage to do what you did. In another time, that act might have saved your family, or even your tribe.’”
The great prophet Moses tells his people in the Old Testament lesson, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him”.
Choose life. It may seem slightly strange to read this lesson alongside the story of the struggle of indigenous peoples to retain identity and land, endorsing as the Deuteronomist appears to do, the colonization of a land, the forced removal of peoples to make space for God’s chosen. But, underneath this apologetic for empire, competing with the colonialist mindset, is the tradition attributed to Moses, is the old way, the teachings of God, a call to live according to the precepts of their forebears, to live with gratitude to God for God’s provision and promise, to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, to love God, to love neighbor, to welcome the stranger. This is the only life worth living. This is what it means to be alive. Choose life, he says.
We all have choices to make, each and every day, and how we choose is a perpetual process of shaping and reshaping us and the world around us. In some ways the gospel today is about choices – rather tough ones if we’re honest. The harsh, almost violent language of Jesus has long disturbed generations of followers. How could Jesus ask us to hate our families, to hate mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself? Doesn’t such an extreme position seem at odds with a God who taught us to love, who bids us choose life? It should be noted that while hate was often used in the biblical tradition as we commonly use it today, that the opposites of love and hate like many polarized terms, could also be used to set up extremes in choice, to underscore the need for moral discernment. In many ways, taken in the context of the whole passage and the wider gospel, we come to understand that Jesus is noting the extremity that his way presents to followers, that there will be competing demands on their loyalties, that they must be on their guard to discern and see where their hearts and minds have been colonized by the desires of lesser gods, idols of power, comfort, honor, and even familial loyalty. The costs of following Jesus include all we possess, and all we hold dear. But like a mother concerned for her children, Jesus seems to believe that the old ways, the ways of neighbor love and welcoming the stranger, the ways of treating everything as gift instead of possession, the ways of grace and peace, are ways worth passing along, worth giving our lives over to. Choose these ways, he is saying. Choose life.
I was standing in the check out line this summer at the IGA in Grand Marais. The store was largely empty on a lazy mid-August afternoon, and the young guy in front of me was buying an energy drink and a snack. He made small talk with the cashier as I waited, and they seemed to know each other, jesting and laughing. As he finished paying and took his bag, heading for the door, she continued teasing him, talking about his having once been a mischievous youth who grew into a mischievous adult. Was she his mom, I wondered, his auntie?
“Do you remember ‘Ogichidaa’?” She called out, as he had one hand on the door.
He paused for a moment, grinning, clearly thinking.
“It means ‘warrior’, right?” he said.
“That’s right!” she responded. “Don’t forget you’re a warrior!”
And she chuckled and he laughed, and slipped out the door.
As I unloaded my basket, she looked at me and smiled.
“I like to remind the kids of their language,” she said.
I agreed with her. Language is so important – it is often the gateway to understanding culture, to seeing ourselves as we truly are. And, as we started chatting, she pulled out her phone to share with me a recording of her daughter, recently interviewed on local radio, where she introduced herself, giving her name, tribe, and familial associations all in fluent Ojibwe. Her mother was so proud, she played it twice, holding the speaker up to my ear to be sure I caught it. And then she told me how it is often hard to get her daughter to take the old ways seriously.
“When we go to the Powwow, sometimes she doesn’t want to put on her regalia and dance. She sees the other kids running around, and all she wants to do is be a kid, to go and play,” she told me.
But, for her, she explained, the decision isn’t a choice for her daughter to make. The language, the dancing, the old ways, are a way of life. This is what she chooses for her daughter, like it or not, and so for her, the struggle was real.
Who among us, wrestling a kid into their Sunday best hasn’t felt this same struggle. To want our children to know more than a tradition – to know a wisdom and a way in the world, to let the old stories and songs imprint on the heart, to shape the way they enter the world, is such a challenge. For us who gather here, who bring ourselves, our families, our children and grandchildren into this place, knowing the way of Love, practicing the teachings of Jesus, becoming his body in the world, is a choice we make. Our faith may not feel daily like a matter of life and death, but it matters enough that we choose to be here, today, choose to make this our story, and continue to show up, even when our minds and hearts and calendars are colonized by all of the competing demands and all the counter-narratives the world has to offer. And, whether we recognize it or not, our faith is a matter of life and death.
The stories and ways we practice, the choices we make, shape the people we become. Each and every day, Jesus is calling us into a world that wants to colonize our minds, telling us we can own things and beings, that we can control each other, assert our wills on the land and the creatures who inhabit it, that we can belong to ourselves and not to each other. Jesus calls us to carry our cross, to follow on a way that requires nothing short of our all, and then he assures us that such a way is life. Like Rosalie Iron Wing, the practices we keep and the stories we tell, the grammar and language of our tradition, shape us into a people capable of seeing the land and the water and each other as a profound gift, allowing us to discern the evil lies of empire, to see a life that is truly life. So, we continue to show up, to learn the songs, to practice the old ways, to carry forward the life we have been entrusted, and to live as followers of Jesus’ way of love. Today we are given the choice again. Choose life.