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Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58.1-9a

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

Matthew 5.13-20

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

‘You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.

That is quite a tall order.  Between this and the passage that Tyrone read about the fast that God chooses, we are under a lot of pressure to perform, to solve the problems of the world.  Of course, we want to be good, but that good?  Not to break even the least commandment?  To loose the bonds of injustice?  To break every yoke?  Less daunting to focus on the first part of what Jesus said.

Salt of the earth, light of the world – these are old images for Christians, filled with hope and encouragement.  It’s just what we like to hear, that what we are doing is good, and helpful, and even needed by the world.  Let your light shine.  On a grey February morning we probably all need to hear that.  But it’s complicated.  One of the main messages of Black History month is that to go forward you have to look back, and salt and light isn’t always what it looks like.

Black history month isn’t only about learning some history and celebrating the contribution of black artists and musicians and politicians and educators to the cultural fabric of our city and country.  Probably one of the most important aspects of it is the hope that through all these activities and consciousness raising, people might find an element of healing.

The wounds that humanity has inflicted on itself through conquest and enslavement and colonial dominance and patriarchy are deep and enduring.  If you do look back, or around you, you can see the evidence in almost every person.  No-one really escapes.  Some of these injuries are life-defining, some perhaps less debilitating.  Some are deep and others superficial.  At the root of these wounds is the simple human tendency to want to push other people around.  Somehow humans seem to believe that they will feel better and safer if they can make others do what they want.  That their lives will be improved if they can make this happen by force.  As any four-year-old can tell you, I want to be the boss of everybody.  And, of course we know of the ramifications through history – of empires and wars and what Jesus called the powers.  You yourself may not be a bully or an aggressor, but we get caught in systems of exploitation that position us that way … as soldiers, or tourists, or investors, or people of privilege.  Just by eating chocolate or buying clothing.  We inherit systems of government and ways of living that are built upon old abuses that make us, even if indirectly, abusive.  And it is clear that whether we are speaking of intractable poverty, or the degradation of the environment, or protracted armed conflicts, or racial bias in conviction and incarceration rates, we are all harmed by the human tendency to treat other humans badly.  Some are harmed gravely.

In the world we live in, it may be that the wounds of racism are the worst of all.  Scientists have shown that the concept of race itself is not a given, but a social construct that operates to separate people into categories whose definitions fluctuate over time.  Race, so called, often has almost nothing to do with genetic patterns.  The concept became a useful way to justify biases and generalizations – even to rationalize slavery and apartheid.  There is a history which still affects our society of ranking people by racial category.  It was 1949 before people of Asian descent were permitted to vote in Canada, while restrictions on Indigenous franchise continued until 1969.  Black Canadians were prevented from eating in certain restaurants as late as 1956.  And beyond official exclusion through rules and regulations, the informal and unacknowledged practices of discrimination and marginalization continue.

The movement called Black Lives Matter arose as recently as 2014 in response to ongoing incidents of human rights violations and racial bias in policing.  Within our own United Church, the call for work on anti-racism has continued since the very difficult conversation held in the final moments of the last General Council.  Naming and unpacking the role of white privilege in church members’ actions and assumptions has been a central and often uncomfortable part of the work.  It can be hard to own the biases and preconceptions that are at work even in people who consider racism repugnant. Hard to recognize that words and attitudes and expectations can add damage to the grievous work of overt bigotry.

The pain of these realities exists alongside the sense of joy and festivity of Black History month.  Part of looking backward with the Sankofa bird is to recognize the need for healing and for change.  That is, change within ourselves,   as well as within society.

The Christian faith responds with a promise of salt and light.  Jesus says to us – you are salt.  But salt doesn’t just make things tasty, and interesting and worth savouring.  Salt has to do with the truth, it has cleansing qualities.  There is an ancient Middle Eastern tradition that if you plan to harm someone, you should not eat salt with them.  Like the truth, salt in a wound may sting, but it will also draw out infection.  In the absence of refrigeration, you can salt your food to preserve its nutritional goodness.  Jesus’ invitation to be the salt of the earth is an invitation to truth telling, and to the painful work of healing.  We are to preserve what is good, when conditions are harsh.

And what of the call to be the light of the world?  We could get a swelled head.  But light itself isn’t anything – it’s just energy, no taste, no sound – it is invisible.  The good it does is in letting us see other realities.  Jesus says, let that capacity to make the truth visible be the capacity that you have.  It’s an invitation not to banish darkness, but to find the truth there.

As any medical person will tell you, in order for a wound to heal it needs to be cleaned out and set to rights.  In a sense, that is the purpose of Black history month, and in a larger sense, it is the whole mission of the church.  Salt and light can be elements of healing.  However difficult the process, the invitation we have as Christians is to be truth seekers, and truth tellers.  It will be truth that looses the bonds of injustice, truth that breaks every yoke.  We are invited to be part of that.  And for this we give God thanks.  Amen.

 

 

Photo Credit:  castorly stock

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