Don't Blame Me?

Texts: Jeremiah 1, Luke 4

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Yes, this Tuesday is the Lunar New Year, and I gave every other person in worship a red envelope, with 2 chocolate coins so they could share with the neighbour with neither. Later in the service, we all got the same wee cubes of gluten-free bread at the table.

Wasn’t this the first Sunday of ‘Black History Month’, with choruses and artwork selected accordingly? Too bad the lunar calendar doesn’t always give us Chinese New Year in January, leaving February for Black History month.

Why acknowledge either, let alone acknowledge both? ‘After all look at us!’ Indeed, look at us. ‘We’ve done nothing to deserve this challenge.’ Indeed, we’ve done nothing. If we had put a sign out, at 74 Frederick, now at 54 Benton, saying ‘No Asians or Blacks Allowed’, would anything be different?

Our power-point showed slides of the racist caricature on the program cover for the annual Trinity Men’s Chorus ‘Minstrel Show’ of 1958. Much later, another archival photo showed photos of men on Trinity’s stage in blackface, with a caption mourning that such a fund-raiser had ended to be ‘politically correct’.

Why acknowledge either of the Lunar New Year or Black History Month, let alone both? Perhaps because nearly a quarter of Canadians are Asian, and a million are black. Perhaps because 1.4B Africans, and 3.6B Asians, included over half of all Christians in the globe – incidentally, most under age 40.

Perhaps all those signs, like ours, saying ‘All Welcome’, mean ‘we don’t get it’ in the glib liberal mainline now sideline churches. I used to pass the ‘All Nations Full Gospel Church’ with a forest of national flags on my way to church – and confessed that we were the ’Some Nations Part Gospel Church’. This is whiter.

God’s church includes all nations, and apparently does not favour our Protestant European colonial churches. But even when co-religionists arrived in Canada over the past 60 years, looking for Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregational homes, we did not welcome them well. Belatedly – let’s celebrate God’s church.

When my ancestors squatted in this valley, most of our neighbours were black, escaped slaves a majority till Queen’s Bush was sold in ‘crown patent’ title. We were all Methodists or ‘Free Church’, and moved to the cities for our kids’ sakes.

My people were ‘white trash’, flushed from the gutters of industrializing, sent by criminal sentence or famine, or as de-mobilized military from the Napoleonic Wars, ‘down the drain’ of colonies. Some survived, and some thrived, though most, black and white, emigrated south to the USA.

What a demographic revolution happened here over one generation, 200 years ago – and here we are in an equally big ‘churn’ in KW. We are post-industrial now, with an economy dominated by universities, insurance, and technology. Urban demographics are volatile – and not reflected at all in our congregation.

Since my arrival in October 2017, I’ve pointed to parallels between Jeremiah’s situation and ours. He was born into a corrupt declining subculture, which was not his fault. Israel in the north had fallen before he was born, and Judah’s elite from Jerusalem would be exiled to Babylon in his lifetime.

Jeremiah spoke up, and was censored and jailed. He got it wrong, favouring an Egyptian alliance against the threat from Babylon. He got it right, ‘told you so’, as Babylon ruled, but he was just depressed about it, wishing he had never been born in a series of ‘jeremiads’. In the end, he didn’t win, assassinated in Egypt while his friends and allies at least shared their exile along the Euphrates.

Today’s reading for the global church is not about Jeremiah’s end, rather about his childhood call. Jeremiah resisted the compulsion, protesting that he didn’t know anything – and was just a child. God denied him the excuses, and would not permit him ‘bystander’ status. We heard Peterson’s Message translation:

Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish,

And then start over, building and planting.

We don’t get to whine that ‘we’ve done nothing’. Indeed, we’ve done nothing. We don’t get to excuse ourselves as bystanders who don’t know anything – inexpert, we aren’t eager to get qualified, but it’s high time we began. Complicity shames us into defensively protecting our scraps of privilege, saying ‘that’s just church’, and I reply ‘not my church’! ‘Not in my name’, says God.

We were called this week to remember the anniversary of a Montreal mosque shooting, with the hashtag #AgainstHate I ask who was for hate, and dismiss the ‘gospel of nice’, unable to name evil. We need not demonize other people to try to exorcise demons possessing us all. ‘Extremists’ or ‘radicals’ are not the real threat, rather the denial of real inequity and injustice.

This is not a gospel of prosperity or popularity, ‘how to win friends and influence people’. This is not good advice. It’s a cautionary tale, in the story of Jeremiah, and in the story of Jesus, according to the third gospel. Jesus is doing fine, reading the prophet and helping and healing – then he preached about ‘them’:

I can assure you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time,

when the sky was dammed up for three and a half years,

and a severe famine swept through the land.

Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them,

but instead to a widow in Zarephah near Sidon.

In addition, there were many lepers in Israel in the prophet Elisha’s time;

yet none of them was made clean, except Naaman the Syrian.”

Everyone in the synagogue was filled with rage when they heard this.

They rose up, ran him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill

on which their town was built, intending to hurl him over it.

Jesus said God loved ‘them’, in Lebanon and Syria. Can you imagine people feeling threatened such a gospel, resorting to vigilante justice to shut him up? Sure you can: ‘We’ve done nothing’. Indeed, we’ve done nothing.

A later slide on the power point in worship was ‘Sankofi’, a West African figure from Nigeria. (As I preached recently, that’s a nation of over 200 million people, soon to be second biggest in the world.) Sankofi is a bird carrying an egg, looking backward. So we did, so we will, and trust the grace of God.

Robbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott were a couple of poets in the late 1700’s, voices of the disenfranchised Gaelic speaking Scots, vanquished by the English. Their words were used in the Victorian PR miracle that created ‘British Empire’. Slaves of the Ulster plantations and crofters destitute from Highland Clearances, through the Potato Famines, were conscripted into imperial armies using clan tartans and bagpipes, and expelled to the colonies with pride, not rancour.

A full week past Robbie Burns’ Day, after a long harangue on Lunar New Year and Black History Month, I do not think that it was a non sequitor to close with ‘Address to the Unco Guid’ (Rigidly Righteous):

My Son, these maxims make a rule,

An' lump them aye thegither;

The Rigid Righteous is a fool,

The Rigid Wise anither:

The cleanest corn that ere was dight

May hae some pyles o' caff in;

So ne'er a fellow creature slight

For random fits o' daffin…..

….Then gently scan your brother man,

Still gentler sister woman;

Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,

To step aside is human;

One point must still be greatly dark,--

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone

Decidedly can try us;

He knows each chord, its various tone,

Each spring, its various bias:

Then at the balance let's be mute,

We never can adjust it;

What's done we partly may compute,

But know not what's resisted.

Lunar New Year and Black History Month: why acknowledge either, let alone both? ‘After all, look at us!’ Indeed, look at us! ‘We’ve done nothing!’ Indeed, we’ve done nothing. ‘That’s just church!’ Not my church – not in my name.

Born into a declining subculture, it’s not our fault. Who would not resist the call:

Your job is to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish,

And then start over, building and planting.

Luke’s gospel knows Jesus lived and died just before Jerusalem fell, recalled the petty parochialism expecting God to favour Israel over others. Imagine Jesus preaching how Elijah preferred a widow in Lebanon, and Elisha a soldier in Syria. That’s like telling Canadians that God loves Black and Asian people.

The last slides were images of a black Jesus, risen and showing his wounds to a black Thomas and other black disciples, and an icon of a young North African which I offered as an image of young Jeremiah. As usual, I got it wrong, got it right, and did not win. Let’s leave judgment and vengeance to God, and repent.