Well, what with floods, global pandemics and recent reflections on the communal and entrenched sin of racism in our nation, things have been a little…well…heavy recently so before I start the sermon, I thought we could enjoy an amusing aperitif. For a bit of light relief, here is the winning entry in the Ship of Fools’ funniest religious joke of all time poll:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
And now to today’s reading…
Reading: Genesis 9:18-27
In 2004, I went backpacking around Ghana. There we watched elephants gather around watering holes, spent time exploring pristine beaches and visited Elmina Castle, a former slave fort where the chapel could be found directly above the unlit dungeon where up to a thousand men and five hundred women were shackled without water, sanitation or even space to lie down.
In 2008, I co-led a school trip to Poland. There we enjoyed the architectural beauty of Krakow’s main square, explored the cavernous salt-mines of Wieliczka and visited Auschwitz Concentration camp, where guards wore belts inscribed with the words ‘God With Us’ as they murdered over a million people including Jews, homosexuals and those from the Romany community.
In 2016 I went on holiday to the United States of America, where I walked Boston’s Freedom Trail, discovered the beauty of New England’s coastline and visited Salem, where Puritan Christians declared that the Devil had overtaken weak women who were therefore put to death for being witches.
Three different continents. Three different centuries. One tragic connection – the dehumanization and mass murder of those who are ‘different’ – different ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexuality or gender – by supposedly good, God-fearing people.
Examples of such persecution through the years are all too frighteningly common and any difficulty in recalling such widespread horrors on British soil could be due to our tendency to save our most heinous crimes for the colonies – it’s much neater that way! But if a third of the world was pink at the height of the Great British Empire, it was due to the blood that was spilled in the name of King or Queen and country. Those amongst us who might want to defensively cry ‘not us in Wales’ would do well to read the book Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery 1660-1850 or perhaps watch the documentary it inspired on YouTube. The truth is that, just as Noah pronounced on his sons and their subsequent descendants, we are all the inheritors of an unjust global system in which some are still born in chains whilst others are born to reap the rewards of their oppressed siblings’ work. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us, as if it were needed, of the huge disparity in global wealth and of our good fortune to live in the world’s 6th largest economy which enables an excellent health care and benefits system – an economy which was in no small part founded upon the natural resources, hard work and slavery of those in foreign climes. Indeed, the fact that it was only in 2015 that we paid back the debt which the British Government incurred to compensate slave owners is a stark reminder of slavery’s ongoing legacy.
As we reflect on the nature of prejudice and history of violence, we might well ask what is it that enables people to view their sisters and brothers as livestock; to execute young women on a whim; to attempt to eradicate whole tribes, nations and religions. For that, perhaps we have to begin at the beginning.
Those of you who can remember ‘the before-times’ might recall our sermon series on the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. You might remember how, in the Garden of Eden, there was an interdependent mutuality; how Adam saw Eve as ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’. They were as one. Then, after that fateful bit of scrumping, a sense of shame overwhelmed them, resulting in the cessation of their solidarity and the origin of blame – ‘The woman made me do it’, said Adam, ‘and you put her here’. ‘It was the snake’s fault’, Eve replied, ‘ and I was deceived’. And with that, paradise was lost and humanity became divided. And so we hear stories about Sarah vs Hagar; Jacob vs Esau; Joseph vs the rest…and time and time again, we were shown to look out for me and my, not us and our.
Over time, such division evolved into tribe against tribe, kingdom against kingdom, nation against nation. And when God suggested that this shouldn’t be so – that the human-made boundaries of who was in, acceptable, fully human and who was out, disreputable, subhuman were to be destroyed – God’s efforts were met with petulant tantrums (Jonah, chapter 4) and angry denials (Luke, chapter 4). Still God persisted, embodied as one of the persecuted – a wandering preacher who welcomed children, listened to women, healed servants, blessed the oppressed and declared warnings on the wealthy. Still, we didn’t listen and so tried to silence God for good, putting Christ on the cross as we washed our hands clean. Even then, God refused to give up on us, offering a prayer of forgiveness from a cross; sharing words of peace in a locked room; promising the coming of a helper who then came to revive people of all tongues and genders, ages, nationalities and status. And so we dared to believe that the old dividing lines no longer mattered – in fact, they never should have – for there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Of course, the same people who celebrated that were still arguing about the inclusion of gentiles, the status of women, the boundaries of welcome, for whilst we accepted that our me and my had become us and our in Jesus, we decided that some of us were more us than others and thus the sin-cycle rolled ever onward.
Of course…that’s only one way of narrating the story. Another way might be more hopeful…
For whilst our tendency to divide and other did see Sarah push out Hagar; Jacob betray Esau; and Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, we’re also told that God took care of both Sarah, Hagar and their sons; that Esau forgave and embraced Jacob; that Joseph and his brothers were reconciled. Whilst the consuming machines of Empire did try to pit nation against nation, many caught up in them resisted. A Pharaoh’s daughter sees the humanity of a Hebrew baby; an Israelite prophet revives a foreign widow’s son; an oppressed nation vows to welcome the stranger, care for the refugee, look after the foreigner. And when that radical from Nazareth came on the scene, off the cross and out of the tomb, even the great barrier between God and humankind was no more. After such a mind-blowing realization of inclusion and unity, it’s no wonder that enemy soldiers and foreign eunuchs were the first to be welcomed to the growing family, the boundaries of which generally extended wider and wider as the years rolled on.
Like Adam and Eve post-picnic and Noah and his sons post-cruise, the temptation to divide and demean, blame and judge the other is something we are all inclined towards and we need to acknowledge, learn about and fight against this. But before Eden’s snake-snag and Noah’s drunken rant, Adam and Eve were one; Noah and his sons were a family. Togetherness, mutuality, solidarity is in our original make-up. We were made to welcome, enjoy, love the other. As David Henson, friend of St. David’s Uniting Church, remarked last week;
If…God’s nature is one of unconditional welcome, as revealed in Christ, and we’re made in the image of God, then welcome is a fundamental part of our own souls.
All of which means that when we are tempted to divide and demean, to accept exclusion or inequality, we are working against our God-given nature – we are not only dehumanizing the other, we are dehumanizing ourselves!
I believe that, in Jesus, God became fully human so that we might be too. So that we might have life in all its fullness. So that we could be true to our original calling of togetherness with one another, with all creation and with God. Jesus wasn’t the back-up plan for a sin-soaked world but the model and means of a sacred solidarity that was there from the very beginning – the shalom of God. Of course, Jesus knew that whilst we could at least jot down the basics – turn cheeks, judge not, love neighbours – it might take us a little longer for his love revolution to shake the tendency to divide from out of our system and he told us to await the Spirit who had yet more to teach us. Recently, it would seem that the Spirit’s been more wild goose than gentle dove and, even then, some of us are reluctant to listen. But listen, we must. And learn. And call out prejudice and challenge inequality and confess our own judgmental ways and delight in difference and love all our neighbours and speak of us and we and practice grace and thank God that we have been made in the image of the One who welcomed us all into existence.
Or let me put it another way…
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. So do I”. He climbed down and we embraced. Amen.
Where do we go from here?
As our sermon series on prejudice and discrimination comes to an end, our learning about what we can do – as individuals and as a church – to help dismantle systemic racism and herald God’s realm of justice and joy continues but it can be hard to know what to do. We sing that ‘I have a voice’ and that ‘we can make a difference’ but what might that look like? Well, allow this white English man give you the answers…
Only kidding! Though some of us are slow on the upkeep, it doesn’t quite work like that! Instead, below are some thoughts and ideas picked up from others about where might choose to go next.
Educate yourself. Both online and in print there is a wealth of material that might enable us to hear the voices and stories of those who are often ignored or silenced. Some of us have committed to working through Layla Saad’s ‘Me and White Supremacy’ book during the month of July and will share our responses. All are welcome to join us in this.
Use your financial power. How we spend, save and invest our money can often reveal our priorities. As the obscenity of global inequality continues and some companies get accused of modern slavery, now might be an opportune time to reflect on how we manage our finances. For those who are online, websites such as https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ and https://www.waronwant.org have some guidance about our consumer influence whilst others such as https://thegoodshoppingguide.com/ethical-banks-and-building-societies/ have guidance on how to bank more ethically. Those not online can find similar resources in print, such as The Good Shopping Guide.
Campaign. Both Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting Church have a long history of involvement with causes and charities which campaign about issues of justice, such as Christian Aid and Amnesty International. Find out more about their current campaigns and what we can do to support them. Both these charities along with Embrace the Middle East and many more are currently calling upon us to act against the Government of Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank which we can do by writing to our AM and MP to give voice to our concerns. Those wanting to do this might include the thinking that:
- Annexation would seriously damage the prospects of a two-state solution which reflects the long-standing international consensus in favour of a negotiated peaceful settlement.
- Annexation risks creating a one-state reality of unequal rights for Palestinians. Annexation is illegal under international law.
- The UK’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea included extensive political and economic sanctions.
Pray. Pray for God’s kingdom of justice and joy to come, for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven. The Joint Public Issues Team’s ‘stay and pray’ daily prayers might provide a helpful focus for your prayers – http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/stay-and-pray-blog/
Self-reflect. ‘[A]s you hasten to be free and build your commonwealth, do not forget the enemy who lies within yourself’. The temptation to dismiss other people and act out of judgment rather than empathy – even in the name of justice – is one that we all have but ‘Love and justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change’. Before we rush to judge another, could we practice pausing and praying for understanding, humility and grace? No one is born prejudiced and no one is liberated from a learnt dehumanizing worldview by violent words or actions, so prevalent in the ‘cancel culture’ of today; whilst authentic dialogue seeking understanding can change hearts and minds. For a contemporary and uplifting example of this in practice, go to https://mashable.com/2018/01/06/sarah-silverman-troll/?europe=true
 Wales and Slavery – The Untold Story – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLtMXhghAvA&feature=youtu.be
 For a powerful explanation of how slavery in America has directly led to the ongoing systemic racism there that we witness today, see the documentary ‘13th’, currently available on Netflix.
 As was demonstrated again last week when six of our financial institutions confirmed their links to the slave trade – https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/18/barclays-hsbc-and-lloyds-among-uk-banks-that-had-links-to-slavery
 For a more detailed look at the techniques and dangers of ‘othering’ look up the work of John A Powell. A good place to start might be – https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/08/us-vs-them-the-sinister-techniques-of-othering-and-how-to-avoid-them
 Christopher Logue, Know Thy Enemy
 Revd Angel Kyodo Williams, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace