Racism: Canadians cannot claim the moral high ground! – a sermon in the wake of Charlottesville – Matthew 14:22-33, 1 Kings 19

Listen to the sermon here

What a beautiful August morning this is! Refreshed by a month-long vacation, I returned to work on Wednesday, eager to engage today’s Gospel story of Jesus walking upon the water. I began work on the sermon for today, convinced that together we would be able to engage the text from our perspective as a “progressive Christian” community. Bearing in mind that summer Sundays require a light touch because most of us are busy enjoying ourselves and few of us are interested in anything that might interrupt our summertime vibe. So, even though the orange fellow down below our border issued an asinine incendiary threat that raised the world’s blood pressure, I decided not to lean into the fear-mongering that various news media were dabbling in. I selected some hymns for us to sing that would allow us to lightly touch our desire for peace on this summer morning and I began to prepare a little story that would help us to see that it matters how we approach the biblical stories; especially the stories in which Jesus engages in miracles like walking on water. So, I do have a gentle sermon designed to encourage us all to be the kind of Christians who look beneath the surface of this story to see beyond the miracles so that we can begin to understand the man that Jesus was rather than the super-hero that Christ has become.

I’d love to be able to preach that sermon to you on this beautiful summer’s day. However, as I look beyond the words of this morning’s Gospel reading, I can’t help but see a vision of Christ walking upon troubled waters and beckoning us to venture out upon those same troubled waters. Just like the Apostle Peter, I too feel like those very waters will swallow me up and I will drown. The waters are deep, they are murky, and I am afraid that we cannot cross over and yet, Christ continues to beckon: “Do not worry, it is me! Do not be afraid!  Come!”

Well those are not the exact words that I heard. The embodiment of Christ that beckons me this morning came to me not in a vision, but rather, as invocations nowadays are won’t to do, via social media. Some of you will remember Kelly Fryer. Kelly was the second speaker in our very first year of our Re-Thinking Christianity speaker series. Kelly spent a weekend with us encouraging us as we began to look beyond the church to explore new ways of being Christians in the 21st century. Yesterday, Kelly waded into troubled waters and issued this challenge to preachers everywhere when she wrote: “If you are a white pastor and you pray for “healing and unity” this weekend but you don’t name the sin of racism that infects this nation, lead your people in an act of contrition and cry out for justice like an everflowing stream, you need to write your resignation letter first thing Monday morning.”

I thought I might be able to avoid stepping out into these troubled waters, because after all Kelly lives south of the border and the infection that she was talking about is south of the border. But suddenly my summer craft, was tossed about in the waves, which had been raised by the fierce winds. At about three in the morning, “Jesus came walking toward me on the lake.” Just as I had resolved to stick with my gentle approach, I noticed that our National Bishop Susan Johnson had tweeted out: “Dear #myELCIC now more than ever, we need to speak out against and work to end racism.” I felt the murky waters rising all around me as I sank deeper and deeper into the murky waters that threaten our peaceful summer excursion. Jesus said: “Come!”

So, let’s get out of our boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. But I warn you that once we dip our toes into the murky water we will begin to drown in the words, words, and more words, words like: “Fire and fury!” “Locked and loaded!” the words of Donald J. Trump Murky words like:  “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un, …the bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary—including war—to stop evil.”  these are the words of the Rev. Robert Jeffress – who is touted as #45’s favorite pastor.

But wait, even if you can manage to stay afloat and keep walking toward Jesus with images of mushroom cloud’s dancing in your heads, there are more words from the orange man who holds a nuclear arsenal in his tiny little hands: “We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option.”

Now, just like Peter who got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus, we  see how strong the wind is and we too are frightened. Our souls cry out, “Save me!” “Save us!” “Save us all.”

Peering through the image of mushroom cloud, it becomes more and more difficult to see Jesus and we long to scramble back into the safety of our boat and speed back to the tranquility of our summer. Let’s just sing some hymns and say a few prayers. If only the waters would stay calm…

A colleague who was struggling to write his sermon sent me these words in the wee hours, it is a message that was tweeted out from by Traci Blackmon as she worshipped at an interfaith gathering at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville on Friday night:    “They are coming for the church! Police all around. They won’t let us go outside. Y’all these KKK are marching with torches!”

Yesterday, as film footage flooded the news media, I struggled to make out the words begin chanted by angry white men. “Blood and Soil” “Blood and Soil” I struggled to comprehend until an explanation was offered by an incredulous journalist: “Blut und Boden” “Blut und Boden” “Blood and Soil. Blood and Soil.” Words from what I believed was a bygone era. “Blut und Boden” a Nazi slogan first chanted in 1926 to emphasize the relationship between true Aryans and a rural life, because Hitler himself believed that true Germans came from the soil. Suddenly, the weight of Blood and Soil was too much to bear upon the murky waters that threaten to drown us all. “They are coming for the church! Police all around. They won’t let us go outside. Y’all these KKK are marching with torches!”

“Wait a minute,” I can hear some of you say. “We are not them. The waters are not nearly as murky up here. We can still see Jesus. We just need to put one foot in front of the other and show our southern cousins how it is done.”

If only it were that simple. But dear friends this boat of ours has far too many holes in it that have been plastered over too many times and the waters upon which we sail are just as murky. As long as children in this country languish in poverty, because of the colour of their skin, on Aboriginal lands bereft of safe drinking water we cannot claim the moral high ground. As long as, the very mention of “Black Lives Matter Toronto,” evokes an ambivalent response from us, we cannot claim that systemic racism does not inhabit our treasured institutions.  As long as, we can continue to close our eyes to the sale of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, or ignore the civilian casualties in Arab nations, we cannot claim that we care about brown or beige lives; especially if they happen to be Muslim. As long as, we fail to confess our own white privilege we cannot claim that we are part of the solution.

For years and years, I believed that my status as a woman together with my status as a lesbian, shielded me from the charge of white privilege.  After all, I belong to two groups who suffer from discrimination. But when I examine my life, the reality of my white privilege screams out to me from the depths of who I am. As s child, the government of Canada paid my airfare and the airfare of my family so that we could immigrate from Belfast to Canada. The government paid for me to come here at the very same time as the government was tearing children from the arms of indigenous parents and forcing those children to suffer the abuses of residential schools. My white privilege allowed me to grow and thrive in Canada despite the realities of the discrimination of women and LGBTQ folk in this country.  As long as, far too many of us fail to face up to the realities of the privileges we enjoy as a result of our race, the horrors of the murdered and missing indigenous women of this land that we love, will continue be swept under the carpet of our nation’s denial. Continue reading

Beneath the Surface: What difference does it make how we interpret this little story? – a sermon for Pentecost 10A – Matthew 14:22-33 and 1 Kings19:9-18

After a splendid month-long vacation, I have returned to work as two mad men toss rhetoric into the ether that is designed to to strike fear of a nuclear holocaust into the hearts of people everywhere. Looking at  Sunday’s readings:  1 Kings 19:9-18 in which Elijah hears the still small voice of God and Matthew 14:22-33 in which Jesus walks on water. Somehow, this sermon that I preached three years ago seems appropriate to repost so as to encourage us all to look beneath the surface of what we see, hear, and read! Shalom… 

Listen to the sermon here:

There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks, who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he tow walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks he too returned striding upon the water.  The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not!  I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?” 

Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the Gospel according to Matthew’s story of walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter we too have precious little faith that we or even Jesus for that matter can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we nor Jesus are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, many more monks than simply two to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us were the stones are so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come. One of those many monks is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254 and who left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To put a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lay a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning. For centuries, the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as the mysteries. While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries eventually creating a church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story that goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture that relies on symbols, myth, illusion and most important of all, allegory.

Origen and generations of theologian who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world. Sadly, perhaps in the beginning out for expediency’s sake, but eventually to preserve its own power over the masses the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures. The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by humanity regarding the natural world. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds and you and I live in a world where information is at our finger tips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices can now unlock the deeper mysteries that the church once kept hidden for the initiated. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy which once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture every jot and tittle have been carefully examined and re-examined and we know have so many interpretations that no-one of us can claim to be an expert in the field. We are all once again simply seekers of meaning. But there are a few of us who have dedicated their lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we here at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be know the as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world and it is Dom Crossan who I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface that might just enable us to find our way upon the sea so that we too might walk on water toward this character Jesus. Continue reading