Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:
Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 2, 2020
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob!
Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
I think it is probably fair to say that on a slushy Sunday morning at the beginning of February, most of us wonder, at least briefly, what we are doing here? You could have stayed in bed, or gone with friends for brunch, any number of things. Perhaps you knew that with the beginning of Black History month there would be some very fun music to learn and sing. Or perhaps there is someone here you wanted to touch base with. Or perhaps you just pushed yourself. A couple of people have mentioned it to me in the last little while – that urge to do something about your faith, to show up for it, even if your faith itself is complicated and intangible. There is something mysterious about the desire to come together in Christian worship.
The apostle Paul didn’t put too fine a point on it – he wrote to the Corinthians, flat out, that the message of the cross is foolishness. Despite our strong intentions to be warmly inclusive and sincerely open to all, to be welcoming, despite the simplicity of the formula – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God – despite all that, the basic message of the church is just a bit nuts. Blessed are the poor? The grieving? The ones who just can’t accept the way life is, but won’t stop longing for the world to be more just? And this is proven by a political execution 2000 years ago? And the way we put that in the centre of our lives is by gathering on a Sunday morning to sing, pray, and share a meal? Well, fine, we can hear so many of our friends say, fill your boots. It’s fine, it’s harmless – but it is foolish.
Sometimes the foolishness isn’t harmless. There is a story told of the origin of the children’s hymn we sang this morning. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, more than 12 million people in Africa were enslaved and transported from West Africa to the Americas to be sold into conditions of extreme oppression. Well, 12 million were transported, but only 10 million got there, such were the cruelties of the trip. As shipments of people from inland were collected at the coast, they were gathered into holding prisons along the coast. These so-called slave castles consisted of large dungeons, with a door of no return for loading the people onto the ships. The upstairs quarters housed the European traders, the shipping offices. Here is a description of the Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana.
Up to 1,000 male and 500 female slaves [better to say, persons who had been captured and enslaved] were shackled and crammed in the castle’s dank, poorly ventilated dungeons, with no space to lie down and very little light. Without water or sanitation, the floor of the dungeon was littered with human waste and many captives fell seriously ill. The men were separated from the women, and the captors regularly raped the helpless women. The castle also featured confinement cells — small pitch-black spaces for prisoners who revolted or were seen as rebellious. Once the slaves set foot in the castle, they could spend up to three months in captivity under these dreadful conditions before being shipped off to the New World.
An environment of harsh contrasts, the castle also had some extravagant chambers, devoid of the stench and misery of the dungeons, only a couple of metres below. For example, the British governor and officers’ quarters were spacious and airy, with beautiful parquet floors and scenic views of the blue waters of Atlantic. There was also a chapel in the castle enclosure for the officers, traders and their families as they went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting. https://theculturetrip.com/africa/ghana/articles/ghana-s-slave-castles-the-shocking-story-of-the-ghanaian-cape-coast/
They would gather as we do on a Sunday morning to pray and to sing hymns. It is said that the captives below could hear the singing, and it convinced them that there must be a God somewhere. That’s what our hymn is about. In the long run, the faith and the songs of the people who went through those castles have become a deep repository of human courage and resilience, a resource for all Christians everywhere. For all people. But it is one of the great mysteries that a religion so befouled by its own history, so contaminated by its own followers, could still speak through to the hearts of suffering people. We have to agree with Paul that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.
When Paul talks about the foolishness of the cross, he distinguishes between those who are called and those who are not – the sozomenoi, who are saved and the apollymenoi, those who are perishing. Over the centuries, this has often been interpreted to mean that if you believe, God will reward you by saving you, but not save those others over there. I think you can read this instead to say that there is something inherently saving about finding oneself outside the logic and wisdom and power of the world. That is, when you can shake the grip of all-pervasive systems of thought and a defective social order, God’s grace will bring you to a truth that is more true than the oppressive reality around you. Indeed, you have to shake that grip, or you will find yourselves with those for whom the cross is a stumbling block. You really cannot affirm the existing order of society, the wisdom of the world – this is the insight of the beatitudes of Jesus, and of the heritage of profound faith we find in the spirituals, in Nelson Mandela, in Martin Luther King Jr., in Toni Morrison, in all those who have ever sung, over my head, I hear music in the air. These are the blessed fools.
For those of us who live more or less comfortable lives, in a pretty good country, and a fairly nice church, it can be hard to hold on to this truth. Hard to be a blessed fool. We fall back into complacency; believe we are full of wisdom. We let the greed and materialism around us infect our own choices, we inadvertently pick up the insidious habits of racism and exclusion that abound in our society, we start to think too well of ourselves because we see the faults of others.
In the passage from Micah that Allison read, we hear the cure for that. It’s not a once and for all faith declaration, or a conspicuous religious gesture, but a process. Don’t use your faith to make you feel safe, says the prophet, but let it spur you, to justice and to kindness. Remember to walk with God.
As we enter Black History month, trying to go forward guided by the past, and as we look around us at this interesting, wide, and calamitous world, we are invited to take on God’s foolishness. To watch for the fractures in our own thinking, the places where our worldview needs to be cracked open. To approach the world with a beginner’s mind. As we join our hearts and our voices at Bloor Street on a slushy February morning, we find that we are not alone in our foolishness, and we give God thanks.
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Bird in the Sankofa position (looking back)
Former collection of French botanist Jean Baur.
Donated to the Museum of Toulouse in 2010.