Art Credit: Alan Syliboy, Mi’kmaw Artist

Art Credit: Alan Syliboy, Mi’kmaw Artist

keeping covenant - indigenous ministry sunday

Introduce indigenous Sunday – introduce sources used – articles by Mike Hogeterp (CRCentre for Public Dialogue); article written by Christina DeVries – teacher on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario – conversation with Shannon Perez – works for CRC’s Canadian Indigenous Ministry out of Winnipeg – and conversation with Cheyenne Joseph of Kairos. 

Genesis 15:1-21

This is a story about covenant.  There are lots of stories about covenant in Scripture – we call our theology Covenant Theology – because covenant is so important to our understanding of the grand scope of Scripture – from Genesis to Revelation – all tied together with covenant.

Another word for covenant is promise.  Usually it is a two way promise.  Between two parties.  In Scripture – the promises are made between God and his people.

Like the one God made after the flood.  With Noah.  Where God promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood. This was actually a one way promise – no strings attached.  The sign of the covenant?  A rainbow in the sky.

God also made covenants with Abram.  Promises of land and descendants.  Some with conditions.  Some without.  I will be your God – you will be my people.  

God made covenant with his people Israel.  These were conditional.  I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt – you shall have no other God’s before me.  If you obey me, I will protect you and bless you and you will prosper.  If you are disobedient, I will break out against you.  Exodus – Leviticus – Deuteronomy – all covenant.  Law after law designed to protect God’s people – but also God’s creation.  The animals – the land – those who are slaves.  Covenant was all about protection.  

God made a covenant with King David.  One of your descendants will reign on the throne forever. This was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  King of Kings. Lord of Lords.

Covenant is very important to Scripture.

Including the example we just read in Genesis 15.

A covenant between God and Abram.  

This story may seem very strange to our 21C ears – but it does serve as a good example of how covenants worked in the Ancient Near East at the time of Abram.

In that time, there were three types of covenant.  There were Royal Grant treaties – unconditional promises of land and protection – given out by a King to his loyal subject.

Then there were Parity covenants – promises made between two equals –promises based on mutual respect and friendship.

Then there were Suzerain Vassal treaties – agreements between a powerful king and his subjects – promises of protection in return for service and obedience.

The story we just read in Genesis 15 is an example of a Royal Grant covenant.  A one way promise given by the king to his loyal subject.

The format of the covenant follows the typical legal format common in treaties of the day.

It begins with the king identifying himself in Verse 7:

I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans – 

Then the promise is stated:  

I will give you this land to take possession of it.  Your heirs will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. (verse 5)  That is the main part of the document.

Then a sign is given.   In this case, a heifer – a goat – a ram – all to be cut in half and placed opposite one another, along with a dove and a young pigeon. 

Now what would normally happen is that both parties would walk between the carcasses – a kind of symbol of mutual responsibility and also a sign that if either side broke their promise, they would suffer the same fate as the dead, cut in half animals.

But here the story has a twist – this is what makes it a Royal Grant treaty.  

As the sun was setting, we read that Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

And God spoke to him through that darkness.  

And then, after God warned Abram of hard times down the road, a smoking fire-pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the dead animals. 

Commentaries suggest the blazing torch represents God – and that it is only God who walks down the aisle between the dead animals – it is only God who says that I will bless you and protect you – and if I break my end of the promise, I will end up as these dead animals on either side of us.  

This is a powerful covenant of grace.  A promise that Abraham and his descendants could look back on for generations and generations.  In good times of prosperity – but also in the years of slavery in Egypt. God proved himself to be faithful over and over again – and that is what kept his people from losing all hope.

Now covenants don’t only happen in Scripture.  They have happened throughout the history of civilization – including the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples and white settlers.

Hundreds of treaties and covenants were made to govern the relationship between indigenous people and the white European settlers.  Some of these covenants were made in times of peace – and some were made to end times of hostility.  

One example of a covenant made in a time of peace is from over 400 years ago.  

1613.  It was an agreement between Dutch settlers and the Five Nations of the Iroquois. 

It was an agreement of parity – it was made between equals –and a Two-Row Wampum or covenant chain (pictured) was designed to represent the agreement these two groups of people arrived at.


The one group - Dutch settlers - they had come to North America to explore, to trade, to settle the area.

The second group - The Iroquois, had farmed, hunted, raised their families, and built their communities around the Great Lakes.

The two purple lines represented the birch bark canoe of the Iroquois and the boats of the Dutch.  

The three white lines represent peace, friendship, and respect that are to be shared by the Iroquois and the Dutch as they traded resources, shared land and developed relationships.

The lines are parallel – they do not cross each other – 

Both sides recognized and agreed that they would travel down the river of life together, side by side, but each in their own boats.  

They agreed that these paths would not cross or interrupt the lives of the other – 

they would not make laws that could impact each other and they would not interfere in each other’s community affairs.  

The Iroquois would continue living according to their laws, customs, and ceremonies, and the Dutch would live out their lives in the ways they had been raised back in their home country.

Mutual respect on non-interference.  

Looking back, it is becoming increasingly clear that the white colonizers did not remain sailing in their own line - 

Time after time, the lines have been crossed – boundaries redrawn and redefined - promises broken through forced relocation and colonization, reserves, residential schools, natural resource exploitation

We have heard story after story of these treaties and covenants being broken.  Reports have been filed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and more recently by the commission dealing with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women – so we know a bit about the injustices and rape – the murders and horrors of Residential Schools – we have heard stories that abuse and racism and segregation continue, often unchallenged by those in authority.

What ever happened to mutual respect?  What ever happened to protection?  The treaties and covenants were established to protect both sides from this sort of thing ever happening.

Covenants were made to protect.

Whether the covenant was made between equals or if the covenant was made at the end of war where one side has defeated the other – either way, the purpose of treaty and covenant is always to be one of future protection.

When God makes a covenant with his people, he is the King- his people are the subjects – and God promises to protect them and provide for them. 

He does not go back on his word.   In fact, he goes way beyond his word to guarantee blessing and protection for his people.  He actually goes all the way to death in order to make things right for his people.  Even when his own people turn away and rebel – even then he keeps his promise and takes on himself the curse of sin and death in order to keep the scales of justice level.

That is what the cross is about.  The cross is the symbol – much like the Two-Row Wampum belt is the symbol – of the covenant between God and his children, and the length God goes to protect his children.

We are God’s covenant children.  We understand what it is to have the benefits of the covenant promises made by God to us his children.  We know a bit of the security and guarantee of God’s promises made to us and to our children.  We hang on to those promises in times of difficulty and pain – because we remember our baptism, the symbol of God washing away our sin and redeeming us in Jesus Christ.  We remember our baptism, knowing that God is faithful – he is just – and he keeps his word, at all costs.  

We know all of that.  

But do we go one step further, and remember that we, as covenant people, are also called to keep our word.  And that we, when we have broken covenant, or when our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have – that we continue to have a responsibility to repair the harm done.  

I have often heard people say in self-defence – “Well, I’m not the one who reneged on the agreement.  I wasn’t even born when these treaties were made.

Here is what Lakota Elder Dan had to say about that line of reasoning:

“I’m not saying it’s your fault.  I’m not even saying your grandparents did any of it.  I’m simply saying that it happened – and it happened on your people’s watch.

It doesn’t matter that you’re way down-stream from the actual events – you’re still drinking the water.

So I don’t care if you feel guilty – I just care that you take at least some responsibility.  Responsibility is about what you do now – it’s not about feeling bad about what happened in the past.  You can’t erase footprints that have already been made – what you’ve got to do is take a close look at those footprints, and then make sure you’re careful where you walk in the future.” 

As followers of Jesus Christ, we do well to walk in his footprints. When we do, we will know what it is to be faithful – to be promise keepers – and to work with those that live with us in community – and to humbly acknowledge that with God, there are no favourites.

Covenant Litany:  From Indigenous Ministry Office of the CRCNA

L: Our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer makes covenants.

P: Lord, we praise you for making covenants with us.

L: We see the rainbow and remember the covenant the Creator made with Noah.

P: We praise you Lord, for keeping your promise to never flood the whole earth again.

L: We remember covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

P: Lord, we praise you for blessing all the nations of the world through those covenants.

L: Family of Jesus, bring honour to your treaties and covenants. Remember that the Lord punished the Israelites for breaking their treaty with the Gibeonites. (Joshua 9 and 2 Samuel 21)

P: May the Holy Spirit prevent us from making rash promises.

L: People, remember the prophet Ezekiel declared the wrath of Yahweh on the people of Judah for breaking their treaty with Babylon. (Ezekiel 17)

P: Creator, may your Spirit help us to keep our promises. Help us to remember that you love all of your children.

L: People, remember the Passover Lamb and the Lord’s promise through Isaiah of a servant through whom justice will be done on the earth for all nations. (Exodus 12 and Isaiah 42)

P: We praise you Lord Jesus Christ for being the sacrificial Lamb of God. (John 1:29)

L: People, remember that all the nations of the world are promised unity in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)

P: Forgive us for discriminating against believers who are from different cultures and races.

L: Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are called to a ministry of reconciliation. You are called to serve a Messiah who came to break down walls between people and between humanity and the Lord. (2 Cor.5:18; Ephesians 2:10-22)

P: Holy Spirit, help us to love those who are different from us. Bless us with eyes to see the walls of racism that we have built and the courage to destroy those walls.

L: Believe the prophecy of John that the leaves of the tree of life in heaven are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)

P: Holy Spirit, help us to live out your call to justice for all. 

L: Heavenly Father, renew our faith in your covenant promises. Fill us with love for all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Give us the will to break down walls of racism and injustice. Bless us with thoughts, words, and deeds that build bridges of grace, peace and justice for all.

P: Amen!