Sermons That Work

Do You Believe in Miracles?, Proper 17 (A) – 1996

August 25, 1996

Do you believe in miracles?

Well, that’s what we have come to celebrate today: the miracles of Saint David Pendleton Oakerhater, the only Native American on our calendar of saints. Like all good saints, Saint David Oakerhater has miraculous events attached to his name: wonderful acts God performed through him that really do defy our attempts at explanation, and that leave us standing in a place of awe and acceptance based solely on our depth of faith. These miracles are testified to by scores of people. Even to this day most Native American people in the church, including myself, would witness to the truth of the miracles Saint David lived.

I say the miracles he “lived” rather than “did” because unlike other saints, this Native American saint never “did” a miracles. He never chased away snakes or walked through fire or made it snow in the summer. Rather, he lived his miracles, just as his people, the Cheyenne, lived the miracles; just as I, and every other Native person in this church, live the miracle.

Saint David, you see, embodies the miracles of God for our people because he lived them just as we live them now. And that’s why he is a saint for us: not because he is set so far apart from us, but precisely because he is so much a part of us. What he lived, we live. His miracles are our miracles. We testify to the truth of Saint David because we live that truth each and every day.

The first great miracle of Saint David is this: he survived.

That’s it: he survived. And while that may not seem like much of a miracle to you, believe me, from the Native American perspective of his time, this fact alone was a miracle.

Think of the chances of a Cheyenne warrior surviving constant battles with the United States army. Imagine what it must have been like to go up against that kind of firepower. Consider just how fragile life was for the Cheyenne as they were slowly encircled and even exterminated by the superior force of the Federal government.

Survival against odds like that is a miracle. It was a miracle for Saint David and for the Cheyenne. It was a miracle for all of the Tribes who came through the dark years of colonization. It remains a miracle for Native Americans today who continue to struggle to keep their way of life secure against the pressures of assimilation or cultural extermination.

Sometimes, just being alive is a miracle. It is a sign of God’s constant care and protection for the dispossessed and the abused. It shows that there is a champion for the poor and the persecuted. Just being alive to tell the story is a miracle of survival for so many of the Earth’s indigenous people. And the miracle continues. The miracle of a people’s survival continues all across this hemisphere, each and every day. As long as there is a free and living Native community in the rain forests of South America or in the tundra of North America: the miracle of Saint David will continue. We survive against all odds because God is with us.

The second great miracle of Saint David is this: he believed in Jesus.

If you think of all that David had lived through, of all that he had seen and experienced that would have urged him to deny the religion of his persecutors: then the fact that David embraced the Christian faith is something of a miracle.

There are few communities in the United States today who would have a better excuse for denying the Christian message more than Native Americans. After all, the church and the military usually travelled together in our history. The government agents who stole Indian land were Christians. And certainly, the educators who broke the will of young Native men and women were Christians. All around him, David Oakerhater would have had ample evidence that the “white man’s religion” maintained a clear double standard between Europeans and the darker step-children of the church.

So why did he join the Church? Why did he not only become a Christian, but live out his Christian faith to such a degree that he can truly be called a saint?

The miracle of faith is Saint David’s miracle, just as it is the miracle of all Native American people. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Native people like David Oakerhater were able to see beyond the sin of colonialism to the truth of the gospel. Even in their pain, they could look through racism and injustice to find the clear light of Christ.

There are few people as faithful as Native people. Their miracle is a commitment to Jesus that transcends even the most tragic history. In fact, the suffering of the Native American community has made it stronger in its dedication to the Jesus of the poor, the Jesus who preached justice and mercy. The words of this Jesus spoke to David Oakerhater in Cheyenne. The Scriptures spoke his language and bore witness to the truth of the suffering of his people. Like so many other Native Americans, when Saint David accepted the Christian gospel, he did not put it on as something foreign, given to him by the hand of his tormentors, but rather he entered into it as a living part of his own experience. The gospel was Native American. It is Native American. And the miracle is that so many Native people have upheld it through generations of faith: the witness of the poor to the truth that Jesus is one of their own.

Finally, the third great miracle of Saint David: he enjoyed his life.

Surely, in this day and age, that qualifies as a miracle. How few of us there are that can make that same claim.

We live in a way that makes the simple enjoyment of life almost impossible. For one thing: there isn’t enough time. For another: we’re too busy being alive to enjoy living. And ultimately: enjoyment for us is a business, a multi-million dollar business, and therefore something you have to treat seriously. We are grim about have fun.

The irony of this is that most of us in modern America who run through our lives as fast as we can worship a God who told us to be at peace and to savor life as though it were the most enjoyable thing we could ever experience. David Oakerhater is a saint for us, a symbol of Christian life to be admired and copied, because David was a man who never ran away from his life, but embraced it as any person embraces the object of love. He was not consumed by the bitterness of his experiences in life. He was not busy finding someone to blame or accuse. He did not see life as a career or a struggle to the top. He was not competitive, concerned about looking eternally youthful, or worried about making more money. Instead, he loved his family. He loved his people. He loved his church.

The beautiful miracle of Saint David is the miracle of Indian life. It is the miracle of all Native Americans who continue to walk gently on the Earth, as the Creator intended. It is the miraculous endurance of a culture that still values human contact over the Internet and still proclaims the family as the most important way to share that love with others. The miracle of abundant life, of seeing the world as a Garden, of feeling in balance with all of nature, of being intimately connected in the fabric of community life: all of these are parts of the miracle. They are the pieces of a hope that will not die for Native America. They are the promises of a peaceful world for any others who will join Native Americans in treasuring life than spending life.

These are the three miracles of Saint David that we celebrate today. As I say, they are not the stuff of legend or myth, but the very earthy miracles of a very natural saint. They represent the pragmatic, but profound wisdom of Native America. They symbolize the best of our faith and of our teachings.

Saint David lived these miracles, just as countless other Native Christians go on living them today. We survive. We are blessed by God to be the first people of this land. We believe. We remain faithful to the truth of God’s liberating Word through all generations. We live. We are the stewards of a joy given to us as grace because we have suffered so much, just as we are the heralds of a truth for all others who would receive the Good News of Christ Jesus and be free.

These are the miracle of a saint and of his people. These are the miracles of God and of the church. They are the reason we remember a man like David Oakerhater, and, the reason we rejoice that he is one of us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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