Epiphany 4 – February 3, 2019

Rev. Lyndon Sayers Lutheran Church of the Cross Luke 4:21-30

Lincoln M. Alexander

            As we begin Black History Month in Canada, I think about people like the Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander born in Toronto in 1922 and served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII. He became an attorney and was the first black person in Canada to become a Member of Parliament in 1968 and served in the House of Commons until 1980. He also served as Minister of Labour in that time. In 1985 he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and became the first person of colour to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Think about that, not until 1985 did a person of colour represent Canada in this way. After Alexander died in 2012 at 90 years old, Ontario made January 21, his birthday, Lincoln Alexander Day.

            This year Lincoln Alexander Day coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which falls on the third Monday of January. I only discovered this coincidence after the fact, never having heard much about Lincoln Alexander growing up. And yet he is an integral part of the story of Canada’s civil rights history, responsible for legislation that ensured greater labour equality for people of colour in Canada.

White privilege

            Imagine what was said about Lincoln Alexander as a black man entering the office of Lieutenant Governor for the first time. Imagine when he would have traveled to London to meet the Queen as Canada’s representative. These are stories and histories we need to hear. Consider our reactions today when black neighbors receive positions of power and privilege. For example, I have heard from black professors in academia how colleagues assume they are the affirmative action hire. That they got into the best universities not because they deserved it, but to fill a racial diversity quota. Over and over they have to outperform their white colleagues twofold, and take on extra volunteer duties representing the institution’s racial diversity, just to be valued the same as a mediocre white man and even then… 

It is good for us to confess as white folks we find ourselves already enmeshed in systemic racism. Whether or not we are aware of it, we already benefit immensely from white privilege. The fact that we don’t have to work twice as hard just to be recognized. That’s not to say we are not working hard enough, but rather to recognize that our neighbors of colour have to work so much harder. And even among white folks we know women need to work harder than men to receive the same recognition, so often women get the story of inequality. And yet our fight for equality cannot end with us getting our own share. We cannot rest until our neighbors of colour, our queer neighbors, our neighbors with disabilities are treated equally as well. Not just because that’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s our Christian duty.

If only I had been with Jesus…

When we hear our gospel reading today it is easy to pretend that we are the good ones in the story. Often we like to think, “If only I had been there with Jesus I would have responded differently than the crowd. I would have been a faithful disciple. Jesus and I would be besties.” Lived experience reveals otherwise. More often than not we would be among those either getting angry with Jesus or running and hiding when we see the crowd turn against him, ready to throw him off a cliff.”

            Telling the story is also an opportunity for confession, for repenting of the ways in which we fail to stand beside Jesus and those on the margins, who receive the brunt of the crowd’s anger and frustration. How we respond in situations under stress in which we are called upon to speak out when others are under threat says more about us than the fantasies we entertain, “If only I had been there with Jesus…”

Good News as bad news as good news

            Beyond repentance telling the story is an opportunity for us to proclaim the gospel and hear it as good news for us and our neighbors. Commentator David Schnasa Jacobsen characterizes today’s gospel reading as “good news as bad news as good news.” At the beginning of our gospel reading from Luke we hear Jesus’ speech is good news. We are told that Jesus spoke gracious words.

Prior to our excerpt Jesus quotes at length from the prophet Isaiah, which we read last Sunday, in which Jesus declares the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to bring news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is good news.

            The bad news is the people turning on Jesus, complaining that a hometown kid would speak an ill word in their midst, and a moment later they want to throw Jesus off a cliff. This threat of violence foreshadows the cross. Luke is holding together the tension of the gospel, life that foreshadows death on a cross, tracing an arc that bends back again toward new life on the far side of the cross.

            Good news as bad news as good news is the story we continually tell each week. The gospel contains the words of promise that draw us towards Jesus, our rejection of him and his word, and God’s greater power of putting our hate to death, so that new life flourishes. This is a transformation which we undergo daily as baptized Christians. Systemic racism and injustice within us and our society is crucified so that love may flourish.

David Schnasa Jacobsen also reminds us to complicate the story around Jesus’ rejection while speaking in the synagogue. Too easily today we hear an anti-Semitic story of “the Jews” rejecting Jesus, forgetting that Jesus was a Jew. As well Jesus was part of a Jewish religious movement within a larger Jewish religious movement.

We are mindful of the central role Jewish prophets such as Elijah play in the gospels, as well as Simeon and Zechariah who connect the Gospel of Luke to a larger Jewish prophetic tradition. Too often as Christians we read the gospels and New Testament as somehow separate from this tradition. As though Jesus including the Gentiles, means separate from the whole tradition that came before and continued alongside.

Discussion with Kingsley

            Thinking of prophetic voices I think about the presentation we hosted from Kingsley this past Thursday for Dessert and Dialogue. Kingsley identifies as trans, whose pronouns are they, theirs, them, and came to share about themselves for us. Imagine going to speak to a bunch of strangers, for the most part, and share about their own life for our benefit, having to justify that their existence matters. The constant threat of violence to trans people is well documented. For example trans women of colour are victims of homicide more frequently than any other demographic. In Canada their safety would be right up there with the threat of violence to First Nations women, not to mention Two Spirit people within the First Nations communities.

Kingsley spoke with such grace, not blinking or missing a beat with whatever question came their way. For the most part questions and discussion was friendly. There was one woman from a fundamentalist Christian church who repeatedly interrupted Kingsley’s presentation with antagonistic questions and untruths, passing herself off as an “expert” in psychology.

And then something wonderful happened. Before I could respond, not only did Kingsley deftly diffuse this woman’s comments, but several of you of different generations responded firmly but with love. You formed a circle of love around Kingsley, letting this woman know her hate had no home at Church of the Cross.

I share this not to say “aren’t we so good” but because this too is our calling as church. Being church means not only putting up 100 rainbow flags on the church lawn, but then backing up our visual welcome with backbone. When someone comes to push around our invited guest and accuse us of heresy, we surround trans and non-binary people with love. So let us keep surrounding people with love because believe me, people make note of these things. There are queer folks in our midst who are discerning how much they can trust us. People of color, refugees, people with disabilities, women, kids, are always evaluating whether we walk the walk, whether we have their back, whether we are creating space for them around the table.

Big Splash

            As we look ahead to the seasons of Lent and Easter, our own good news as bad news as good news theme built into the church calendar, I invite you to think about our shared mission at Church of the Cross. How do we want to make a big splash, both within and outside the church? In what ways do you feel the Spirit is calling you to proclaim a prophetic message or support others who are already doing so?

            I once met an Episcopal priest in Chicago who encourages churches to make a big splash, to go for it, to try out that big idea because frankly no one else is doing it. We can wring our hands about the overall aging demographic of church and struggle to find enough volunteers to fill all our committees or we can let go of that scarcity thinking and dream big. I know a lot of you are already dreaming big and excited about new possibilities. Let us take time to discern what that looks like.

Wrapping Up

            Let us tell the stories of Lincoln Alexander and other black Canadians like him. Let us learn our own histories and ways in which they disrupt the dominant narratives. Let us recognize that fostering understanding helps heal the body of Christ and makes us all more fully human.

            Let us confess that even though we are those people in the gospel who betray Jesus, Jesus never betrays us. Note that Jesus doesn’t let himself be thrown off the cliff, but escapes. While Jesus is prepared for the cross, Jesus is wily and eludes us and our bad ideas. The Spirit sets us free to do great things, proclaiming release for the captives, making space for trans and non-binary people in the church.

            Through it all the Spirit continues to sustain us with love and grace. Amen.