Every year, right before school started, when my kids were growing up, there was a shopping spree. Not just for school supplies, but for new shoes and clothes. I have boys, but even for them, energy went into choosing the first day of school outfit. It spoke, even if they were thinking that way in Grade 1, to how they wanted to feel that day, to how they wanted to be seen that day. As adults, we understand better that choosing our clothes was one area of control over a day of uncertainty; even kids who wear uniforms often manage to inject some personality into them. So, I can’t imagine what it would feel like to arrive at school, only to have those clothes stripped off and taken, against your wishes.
That is what happened to Phyllis Webstad, an Indigenous Canadian woman who went to residential school when she was six years old. To prepare, her grandmother took her to a local store to get some new school clothes. They didn’t have a lot of money, so it was a big deal. She chose a shiny orange t-shirt with string laced up the front. She remembered choosing orange because it made her feel happy. But when she got to school, it was taken from her – the beginning of an experience to strip her of much of what made her unique, especially her culture. Now, when she sees the colour orange, it is a reminder of this time, as she puts it, “when my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared, and how I felt like I was worth nothing.”
Ms. Webstad had her struggles. She had her son at the age of 13.8 years old – she counts it to the month, because at that age every month matters. But she learned how to be a parent. She has two degrees and is a published author. She is the reason behind Orange Shirt Day next Wednesday, a day when we are asked to wear orange to remind ourselves of our country’s difficult history, and how we had decided, and sometimes still decide, that only some children matter.
But despite all this success – and being a force for change – Ms. Webstad still talks about how she sometimes feels that she doesn’t matter. The thought creeps in, even though, she says, she knows it is not true. She has turned away, but she is pulled back.
We might all relate to that feeling, in our own ways. Perhaps you still hear the language of a parent in your head telling you, even subtly, that you aren’t good enough, or you won’t amount to anything. Perhaps it was your own narrative created by how you felt treated or ignored. And perhaps it is the mistake you know you made, the “wickedness” referred to in the first lessons this morning. Perhaps you cannot shake those either. Those judging words nag at you, they distract you, they pull you back, they make you look back in a direction you would rather turn away from. And yet, it is very hard.
In the gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees in the Temple. Now we are used to Jesus’s striding around confidently, calming seas, feeding thousands, healing those deemed beyond saving. But perhaps we know what it meant in their place of power for someone to put the chief priests in their place. They weren’t used to being questioned; people didn’t contradict them. Certainly, people didn’t question their righteous place in Heaven next to God. And yet Jesus is unfazed. First, we see them dithering, not sure of how to answer their own question about Jesus and his origin story, refusing to pick a side. And then Jesus tells them the story of two sons asked to work by their father. One says, I won’t go, but then goes. The other says, I will go, but then doesn’t. Which one does the work of the father? Now this question, the chief priests can answer: the first of course. And they have walked into the trap that Jesus laid for them. Because his point is that those who are in the wrong but then do right are always better than those who pretend to do right but do nothing.
There is a lot of comfort wrapped up in this message for all of us. First of all, we are reminded again to think for ourselves about our relationship with God, that this is a journey that drowns out the critical voices of others and finds what is true. In this way, society may turn away from corrupt leaders; in this way, we turn away from hostile or toxic voices. But also, Jesus is reminding us how powerful it is to turn away from what hinders us – from regret, or shame, or bad choices – and look towards what may restore us – love and generosity. And that even after it feels as if the decision has been made for us, even if it feels as if we have made the decision ourselves, the choice is ours to change. We can hear a different voice guiding us. We can turn toward something better.
This is the hard part, I think: the tax collector who became a disciple was always once a tax collector. The child who learns to resist the messaging of a difficult parent is still the child of that parent. Ms. Webstad is still a former student of that residential school. Turning away doesn’t erase what happens to us – just as moving forward, as a county, doesn’t erase the terrible pain of residential schools, but it puts it in its proper place, a healing place: one part of the many, many parts we are and are yet to be. By turning away, we stop making it the focal point of our view.
Every day, we are faced with a decision: which way to turn. Every day, we may hear that voice, that phrase, that regret, trying to get our attention. But we can be like the first son in the story that Jesus told, who for all kinds of possible reasons didn’t listen to his father: maybe he didn’t think he was good enough, maybe the last person who asked him to work was cruel, maybe he was the cruel one and doesn’t want to go back. And like him, we might in the moment think we can’t, or we won’t, or we shouldn’t. But then we turn, but not nowhere. Never nowhere. The gospel gives us somewhere to turn, somewhere where there are vineyards to be cared for, and people to love, and love to receive. Jesus intended that to be true for the tax collector and for the high priests, and for all of us, whatever has kept us facing the wrong direction.
Turn, then, and live.