Occupy Justice (Homily for the Last Sunday after Pentecost)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24     Psalm 100      Ephesians 1:15-23     Matthew 25:31-46

by Sherman Hesselgrave

Holy One, you have called us to be the living stones with which you seek to build your realm of living justice on earth.  Make us worthy of this great calling, and open our hearts and minds to recognize your Spirit working in our midst.  Amen.

Last Wednesday, at the midweek Eucharist, we commemorated St Margaret of Scotland, whose feast day it was.  Margaret, the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon princess who married King Malcolm III of Scotland, used her position of privilege and her wealth to provide relief to the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned, as well as to redeem many Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors.  Not surprisingly, the gospel for St Margaret’s Day is the familiar passage we just heard from St Matthew:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

The Hebrew scripture appointed for the St Margaret’s Day is a passage from the 58th chapter of Isaiah:
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? …
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; …. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I could not hear those words without thinking about the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements that have been filling the headlines these last months.  I believe we are hearing the prophetic voice of God in the cries to repair the breach between the rich and the poor–the 1% and the 99%–between the oppressed and the free, for the reign of God is built on a foundation of social justice. Margaret of Scotland was called to be a repairer of the breach, and so are you and I.
Today’s Hebrew scripture reading from Ezekiel is another reminder of our vocation to occupy justice.  The ‘shepherd’ has been such a powerful image in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it is largely due to economics.  In ancient Israel, people depended on livestock like sheep for their survival.  Sheep provided milk and meat, wool for clothing and shelter, and could be traded for other goods.  The shepherd’s job was both vital and dangerous, protecting the flock from both human and animal predators.  If a shepherd was only self-interested and neglected the well-being of the flock, everyone suffered and there would be a day of reckoning.  A good shepherd, on the other hand, would feed God’s sheep “with justice,” as Ezekiel puts it.

As we look around at what has been happening in the world recently, it is difficult not to think of it as a time of reckoning for the shepherds of the economy in which we live and move.  How it plays out will depend on many factors, but the first step toward redressing injustice is to name it, to call it out into the open, to share the stories of how it has wounded, oppressed, or destroyed.  The second step is to call out those responsible for the injustice.  Sometimes the bad actors are well known and easily identified.  Often, we ourselves may bear some responsibility for allowing systemic injustice to go unchallenged, or for putting our trust blindly in people or institutions compromised or corrupted by self-interest rather than the common good.  The third step is to begin the process of repairing the breach.  This is the most challenging part, for the forces to maintain the status quo are very powerful, indeed, especially economic forces.  William Wilberforce proposed legislation in the British Parliament to end the trafficking of slaves every year for 26 years before the Slave Trade Act passed in 1807.  But it would take another 26 years, when Wilberforce was on his deathbed, before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which abolished the economic institution of slavery in most of the British Empire.

Economic justice is a persistent theme in our sacred writings.  When the prophet Isaiah writes:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….

he is writing around the time when coinage is replacing bartering as the method of trading,  meaning that, going forward, in order to participate in the market economy it would not be enough to bring something to trade for something you need; now, for the first time, one had to have money.  Yet Isaiah holds out the vision of God for an economic system where there is enough for everyone, whether you have money or not.  The tension between that vision of the “peaceable kingdom” or  the “reign of God” and the economic systems that followed is as real today as it was then.  Jesus also warned that wealth and power had the capacity to corrupt.  As he put it:  “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Today marks the end of another church year, a day when we reflect on the reign of Christ and Jesus’ coming among us to show us that God’s reign on earth is not some fantastic reality in the remote future, but rather that God’s realm is right on top of us; we can literally reach out and touch it, because it is made manifest in the faithful people of God who live and struggle to put flesh and bones on the vision of God for a just world.  As yeast transforms the dough in which it has been placed, so too the community in which we have been place is transformed when we occupy justice, when we live as inhabitants in God’s realm realized.

While it can be discouraging to regard the magnitude of the challenges we face, we have to remember today’s gospel that every act of giving food or drink to a hungry or thirsty person, every act of sheltering a homeless person, every act of clothing a shivering person, or visiting a person who is sick or in prison is an extension of the reign of Christ.  If we feel that we lack the resources, remember the story of what God could do with five barley loaves and two small fish.

Jesus promised that God will meet us wherever we are and lead us on the path to the place where we need to be.  As we gather in our circle and come to the table to be nourished once again with the spiritual food for our journey, may God give us the faith to trust in the Spirit’s leading, and the courage and strength to do and be what we are called to do and become.

The Mystery of Faith: Fear and Trembling

Accordian Evangelist, Michael ShapcottA very special welcome on this ‘Back to Church Sunday’ to our visitors this morning. Last year, at this time, I was welcomed back to Holy Trinity after I spotted Archbishop Colin Johnson in his full vestments standing in front of Union Station.

I took up the invitation last year… and here I am today.
Let’s begin with a plunge into the deep end of the doctrinal pool, starting with the words of the great American Anglican theologian, Robin Williams. Our sisters and brothers in the Anglican communion in the US prefer to call themselves Episcopalians. Here the esteemed Mr. Williams sets out the top ten reasons for being an Episcopalian:
10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. Church year is color coded!
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
And the number one reason for being an Episcopalian:
1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Rhythms of Grace (Pride Sunday sermon by Sherman Hesselgrave)

Genesis 2:4b-8, 18-23     Song of Solomon 2:8-13       Galatians 3:23-29     Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Rhythms of Grace

“I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” — Anne Lamott

If our forebears could join us today, I can only imagine the range of their reactions to Pride Sunday.  “What?! a Sunday to celebrate one of the Seven Deadly Sins?  What has the world come to?  I suppose you have a Greed and Gluttony Sunday as well?”  And we would get to explain that ‘Pride’ in this context is not about one of the cardinal sins, but about undoing the millennia of shaming that human societies and the church have heaped on children of God whose sexual orientation doesn’t coincide with the majority.  In a way, it’s analogous to the phenomenon in the Harry Potter books, where one undoes a spell by saying it backwards.  This is the kind of pride that cancels out layers and layers of shame.  A year or two ago, when an Anglican priest in Uganda decided to push for legislation that would make homosexuality a capital crime, proclaiming that it was against nature, I conspired with an American colleague in New Jersey to inform him just how mistaken he was.  I purchased a copy of Biological Exhuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, a 768-page survey of how homosexual behaviour occurs everywhere in the animal kingdom, from penguins and bottlenose dolphins to vampire bats and giraffes–and Elizabeth, my colleague, mailed it to him.  (Not surprisingly, we didn’t receive a thank-you note.)

It is painful to speculate how many people have died simply for being a member of a sexual minority, by ignorance and misguided legislation, or by bullying or shaming that resulted in suicide; and how many others lived in terror that someone would find out.  I recently watched a four-episode PBS series on the Medicis, the Florentine family that spanned two of the most remarkably creative centuries in human history.  They were the patrons of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo, and the city of Florence was the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.  Yet tens of thousands of people were put to death in that city alone for so-called crimes against nature.

 

The Medici family had built its empire in part by being the bankers to the pope, and would become a parable of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Two Medicis would eventually become popes, one of whom plundered the Vatican treasury, and then hatched a plan to refill its coffers by selling “indulgences” that would supposedly reduce a person’s time in purgatory before entering heaven.  One could even buy indulgences for loved ones who had predeceased you.  It was a huge success.  But this commercialization of grace was such an affront to an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, that he fired back with the best ammunition he had: a passage of scripture from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome that states unequivocally that we are saved by faith, not by works.  That prophetic moment grew into a great reforming  movement at a time when the church was the most powerful political force in the world.  And while the Roman hierarchy could excommunicate Luther for holding a mirror to their corruption, and silence Galileo for having the audacity to claim that the earth was not the centre of the universe,  both would ultimately by vindicated, although it would take hundreds of years before Rome would apologize  for its treatment of Galileo.

 

And so, a book from which we read every week has been used both to justify the condemnation of Jews, women, scientists, and gays, among others, as well as to provide the antidote for misguided prejudice and abuse.  There are probably some of us in this room who found ourselves uncomfortable during the reading of the passage from Genesis, because the the creation of Adam and Eve has been used as biblical warrant for God’s preference for heterosexuality as the only acceptable combination for interpersonal partnering.  We have all seen the t-shirt: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”  And if all you do is focus on the punchline of this passage, it’s understandable how one can be persuaded by the rhetoric.  But back up for a minute, and let’s take a closer reading.

First of all, the book of Genesis has not one, but TWO creation stories; the first that unfolds one day at a time, with God looking back on the six days of creation and finding it “very good;” and a second narrative that is much more focussed on relationship.  That’s the one we read from today:

It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them….  The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

Sure, this is the language of biblical mythology–there were no CBC reporters on the scene and written language was still far in the future, so what we have was passed down for generations by oral tradition. Nevertheless, the narrative our ancestors told clearly indicates that God allowed the man to decide what a suitable companion would be; the Creator finally gets it right with Eve, and Adam approves.  One person can read this passage and conclude that it therefore affirms that only a man and a woman can be suitable mates, while another can read the same passage and see how God partnered with the first man to create a companion that depended upon Adam’s approval.  And that opens up the story in a completely different way,  a way that steadily gains credence as more and more people realize that sexual orientation is a gift, rather than a choice, and more than that, a gift wrapped in sufficient mystery that no one can speak authoritatively for someone else.  Yet the Church for much of its history decided that it could do what God was not willing to do by dictating who can be one’s partner in life.

 

If St Paul were writing the Letter to the Galatians today, this morning’s Epistle might have been updated to read:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, or gay or straight; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are … heirs according to the promise.

God’s self-disclosure, or revelation, has been progressive from the beginning.  It’s obvious from even a cursory reading of the Bible.  Jesus promises his disciples that God had yet more truth to reveal, truth they weren’t ready to hear at that time.  But there will always be those who are threatened by truth newly revealed beyond the biblical canon, whether the messenger is a Galileo, or a Martin Luther, or a Martin Luther King.  We don’t need to look very far to see the corrosive effects of power in the world in which we live.

My New Testament professor, Bill Countryman, wrote a popular book entitled, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? in which he addresses the chequered history of biblical interpretation.  The Bible can be used to bludgeon, marginalize, silence, or even kill indiscriminately.  But the Bible can also speak authoritatively to any age, even our own post-Christian age.  Liberation theology was animated by the story of the Exodus and the deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  Paul’s letter to the Romans helped to kick-start the Protestant Reformation, and Karl Barth’s incendiary commentary on the same epistle in 1919 was described as falling “like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.”  His teachers had signed a manifesto supporting Germany’s war aims in World War One, and he parted ways with his mentors and the liberal school they represented.  Eugene Peterson, who is responsible for The Message, the contemporary translation of the Bible we used for today’s Gospel, has helped many to see things in the scriptures for the first time.
For example, in the passage from Matthew we just read, Jesus asks the people who have come to hear him:

“Are you tired?  Worn out? Burned out on religion?  Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Those rhythms of grace continue to punctuate our lives.  We know what it is to struggle for justice, to bang on the judge’s door in the middle of the night, to march down a street challenging the power structures of our own day, to write letters on behalf of prisoners half a world away, to telephone or email a politician to demand that voiceless ones are heard; to confront oppressive structures in the church that resist the Holy Spirit’s shaping us into the community Christ promised we could become.

As the Bruce Springsteen song reminds us, “Everybody has a hungry heart”—a heart that longs to be touched by God’s grace.  We are gathered here today, possibly because we have ourselves experienced the rhythms of grace or because we are looking for grace to break into the world we carry around with us every day.  It may be that the delivery vehicle of grace will be a word or a song.  Or perhaps it will be a hug or a story or an action that begins with forming a circle around the bread and the wine and remembering Jesus’ words of promise that we have ALL been made worthy to stand before our Creator, forgiven and whole.

Let me conclude with the same Anne Lamott quote with which I began:

“I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

‘You Belong’ ― Gay priest Jim Ferry reinstated after 20 years as outcast

On Sunday, June 26th, 2011 the Rev. Jim Ferry’s license as priest was reinstated by Archbishop Colin Johnson of the Diocese of Toronto, and he was appointed Honorary Assistant of Holy Trinity, Trinity Square. It is 20 years since he was made an outcast by the previous Bishop of Toronto, Terence Finlay, for being in a same sex relationship. His outing and subsequent public trial in a Bishop’s Court garnered worldwide media attention.

Jim’s sermon “Pride and Prejudice” marked the opening of Toronto’s Pride Week celebrations at Holy Trinity, and highlighted the Pride 2011 theme: You Belong. It is available here (mp3).

“Common Life” Kevin Bezanson’s homily for Easter 4

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

When I received this week’s readings after having agreed to share this morning, I will be honest and say I had a sinking feeling. A guilty, sinking feeling. A feeling that I would, in the process of preparing this homily, have to face something I mostly avoid because I’m just not sure what to do with it. So today I will share, but I will share in many ways the anxieties of the rich. And I want to recognize up front that for many in our midst, these are not your anxieties. And that reality is in some ways at the heart of the question. How do I live in the light of the apostle’s example, of Christ’s example, in 2011 at Holy Trinity in Toronto, Ontario, Canada when I read:

 

“They would sell their goods and possessions, distributing the proceeds to all, according to people’s needs. Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they ate with glad and generous hearts”?

 

I find this overwhelming. I do not find the principle overwhelming. Alright, maybe a little bit. The selfish part of me, the anxious for the future part of me, the deserving because I have earned it part of me, raise a skeptical brow. But in my heart of hearts I sing yes. Yes! This is the kind of community I want. This is the kind of community we need. This is what I want for my children. This is the world I want them to inherit. But how, how can I actually DO this?

 

Well, honestly, my usual approach to this question is rationalization. The reading seems unreasonable. I know that it could not have been as harmonious as all that. There must have been some in-fighting, some jealousy, some corruption. In fact, a couple chapters later we are told about Ananias who apparently held back some money from some land he sold, lied about it, and was struck down as a result. Not a standard I feel capable of achieving. Maybe if the passage said, “After they paid their mortgage, and insurance, and made their RRSP contribution they would sell their possessions” I could believe it, or have a hope of emulating it. It’s different today.

 

Maybe I’m just making excuses. Maybe there is some truth in it.

 

Excuse #1 – Taxes and Social Programs

I pay my taxes . Did you catch that? Whose taxes? As I understand it they had the taxes without the social programs in the 1st century. But in 2011 I pay my taxes in part to support a health care system, an employment insurance system, a social assistance system, a housing system, an immigration and refugee system. This is true. I don’t mind telling you that I willingly pay a lot of tax. What saddens and worries me is that these systems, despite good intent, are clearly insufficient. They are not enough to live on. Yes, we need to advocate with governments that feel corporate tax cuts will trickle down in some magical way to alleviate unemployment, and by extension poverty and homelessness. But whatever I do, I cannot deny that it is not enough. And that I have more than enough.

 

Excuse # 2 – Charitable Giving

I give some of my money away. Did you catch that? Whose money? There are many organizations and people focusing their collective expertise on the critically important needs of our sisters and brothers, and of our planet. And I am thankful we have a system in Canada that recognizes that, and rewards it. One of the positive legacies of my parents and grandparent’s evangelical faith in my life is tithing. For those of you not aware of this discipline, it means setting aside a percentage of money that you earn for giving away. Often the amount cited, based on a somewhat selective reading of the Hebrew Bible, is 10%. I strive to honour this principle. I watched my grandmother, on her tiny pension, honour it. I was the recipient on more than one occasion of small but sacrificial giving. I believe it is an important, valuable, practical expression of the apostle’s example. But whatever I do, I cannot deny it is not enough. And that I still have more than enough.

 

Excuse # 3 – Being Overwhelmed

I am overwhelmed by the needs I know about, and I know they are but the tip of the iceberg. Did you catch that? Whose needs? In the world of tweets and twitters and texts and information from every corner of our global home, I am more aware than ever before of suffering, poverty, violence, and discrimination. I am also aware of people and communities who are finding ways to meet them with creative courage. But how could I possibly choose? And these things are so intertwined, and the forces arrayed so complex and powerful, that I can’t see where to begin. And I despair that it will not do any good anyway. And so I retreat into my life, and try to do good where I can. And then something comes along that I cannot ignore. Sometimes I give, usually money. And I feel better, for a bit. And then I lose heart or interest or feel guilty or get distracted by the rest of life. And so I retreat into my life, and try to do good where I can. And then something comes along that I cannot ignore…and so on. But whatever I do, I cannot deny it is not enough. And that I still have more than enough.

 

So here’s the point I am supposed to provide the answers. But I don’t have them. I do think our readings might help us as we try to find our way. Whatever you might think about the Kielburger brothers and their organization, I think they have captured something essential in the phrase “Me to We”. Later in Acts (vs 4:32) we are told “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything was held in common.” Me to We. A very simple, but very profound and challenging call. I think this is the beginning. The taxes are not mine, they are ours. The gifts are not mine to give, they are ours to share. And the needs that overwhelm me are our needs, not mine or theirs. Our lives are gifts meant for giving.

 

In John’s gospel Christ speaks of himself as the gate. I can understand why (as the reading tells us) “when Jesus used this figure of speech those listening didn’t understand what he meant by it”. I thought he was the Shepherd, not the gate? Turns out he’s also the Shepherd. But for today he’s the gate. At least part of what I think this means is that through Christ, in Christ, with Christ we are called to both the sheepfold and the pastures. We need to move. I recall Fran’s tapestry Doves Getting the Squares Moving. I, we, must engage in the overwhelming, complex, inequitable world all around us. We need to be “called by name and led out”, next door and around the globe. We all need to find a pasture where we feel we can contribute and engage. And we must return to the sheepfold through that gate, along with those we have encountered, for reflection and rest. That too is part of what this space is about. We need both to figure out how to share what we have, and who we are.

 

Peter’s letter speaks of sacrifice, of suffering for doing good. I don’t know very much about this. I have not really suffered for doing good. Rather, mostly I am rewarded and honoured for being generous when I do good. And my sacrifices so far have not cost me very much, not in the big picture. My suffering, if you can call it that, is the struggle to share what I have been given well. Never did I feel this struggle more acutely than living in Malawi, though I feel it here too. Outside our gates (yes our house had a gate), and inside it too, were countless faces and lives that spoke to the inequity of our world, and of our life in it. And sometimes we struggled, imperfectly, to open the gates and go out and listen and respond. Frequently we retreated and reflected and did our best to share with those we met. And it never felt enough, and it never will. And I still cannot drink tea without seeing the women in a green sea of tea bushes picking leaves under a blazing sun.

 

So I am left with my, no OUR, goods and possessions, and our community. I must take responsibility for what I have been given on behalf of us all. Me to we. And we must keep going out and opening ourselves and trying to find ways to share that are authentic. We must keep trying to find spaces and tasks that bring us on to common ground, into common life. The light will shine on our goods and possessions. Our lives will become interconnected and messier and richer as a result. And we must accept that it will not be enough. And that together we have more than enough. And we can only hope there is enough mercy and grace and forgiveness for us all, as together and imperfectly we find our way.