Epiphany 7 – February 24, 2019

Rev. Lyndon Sayers Lutheran Church of the Cross Luke 6:27-38

Mayor of Fernwood

 In a local café hangs the portrait of a cat titled the Mayor of Fernwood. I have many questions. It’s a painting featuring a large tabby surrounded by cherry blossoms and the splendor of a green ribbon bearing the words “The Mayor of Fernwood.” I asked a barista about the backstory. They indicated that there was a cat that liked to hang around Haultain Street and perch atop a sofa at the café. It was such a regular visitor it became known as the Mayor of Fernwood.

The Mayor of Fernwood must have had a lot of friends. It also paints a bucolic picture of a beautiful neighborhood with its Craftsman homes and increasingly diverse people on the streets and sending their kids to local schools. I really love this neighborhood and surrounding area.

At the same time I am aware of the difficulties of community. For example the housing market remains challenging for many. There can be extended families living in relatively cramped quarters. French Immersion programs lead to increased competition for school spots. Not everyone can afford a latte in the café where the Mayor of Fernwood’s portrait is hung. It is honest for us to recognize the tensions that are present among the places we live and how we ourselves play a complicated role as well.

The character of the neighborhood is evolving, which used to be part of a neglected inner core of the city, which increasingly is subject to gentrification along with all of Victoria, which in turn displaces others.

Disrupting Competition

 In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about the command for us to love our enemies. Another way to ask this question is to imagine ways in which we can disrupt the different ways in which we live in competition with one another. Competition leads us to see one another as enemies in one way or another. 

For example, one of the planks in recent anti-immigrant populism, including Canada’s yellow vest movement, is seeing recent immigrants and refugees as a threat to other Canadians. Not to mention their anti-Semitic fears about so-called globalism and the UN. It doesn’t seem to matter how many statistics and facts you point out, showing how immigrants and refugees help our economy flourish, often doing jobs other Canadians would prefer not to do. In part that is because the economic competition argument is just a smokescreen for underlying issues, including systemic racism.

 Another example is when you hear people blame the current housing crisis whether in Vancouver or Victoria on wealthy Asians driving up prices. There may be issues around government corruption, money laundering, adequate taxation, and sustainable housing policies, but that narrative is different than saying the problem is wealthy Asians, which plays into racist stereotypes.

It is perpetuating these systemic injustices, which drive a wedge between ourselves and our neighbors who are different than us. And this also divides churches as we find ourselves on either one side or another of a dividing line. Jesus calls us to see one another not as enemies, but as fellow children of God called to live and work together.

The plain as liminal space

The wider context of our gospel reading helps us sort through some of these issues. Commentator Ronald J. Allen reminds us about some subtle differences between Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 and his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Unlike the mountain, which is considered closer to God and a place to encounter the divine, the plain was considered in Jesus’ day to be a liminal space. The plain is a place where people experience hunger, suffering, mourning, and death. The plain tells us something about the community of believers in Luke-Acts who found themselves in liminal spaces, grappling with the tension between their lived experience and the world Jesus is pointing them towards, an unfolding kingdom of God, characterized by grace and mutual flourishing.

Mutual flourishing in this life

What are ways in which we can imagine our own communities can live beyond the realities of competition and violence into God’s kingdom of mutual flourishing?

One example is Church of the Cross’ building initiative together with Luther Court to offer affordable inter-generational housing. But as we are experiencing it is complicated working out the details, navigating our way through different levels of government, bureaucracy, and grant applications. It’s a lot of hard work, which can be trying at times.

I think about our partnership with Shelbourne Kitchen offering them space below the sanctuary for storage and refrigeration. These are ways in which we share our space and resources with a group addressing the needs of food scarcity in our neighborhoods. There is the work of refugee sponsorship, dialogue building bridges with First Nations people, celebrating our identity as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, and beyond.

In this week’s edition of the Crossroads, we hear testimony from one of our former students who has experienced living in liminal spaces. She writes about the difficulty of affording housing, maintaining a car, and having enough food to eat given under-employment. We know this is a common story in our neighborhoods, and it is difficult knowing someone in our midst who is struggling. I have talked with some of you who know the student as well as others in her situation to ask about ways in which we can be of assistance and support people through challenging times.

One challenge in our gospel text is that Jesus does not promise his followers they will escape suffering in the world, but that together we are living into a world that is undergoing holy subversion. Not by our own will, but by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, we are living into the coming kingdom.

I invite all of us to continue imagining ways in which we can play a part as the body of Christ for the kingdom to come more fully, to become incarnate realities for us all to enjoy.

Co-opting Forgiveness

Another part of Jesus’ invitation is the invitation to forgive others and promise of receiving forgiveness. First and foremost this is a reminder of the unmeasurable forgiveness and love we receive from God. Only a God who forgives sin, who loves without measure, is inviting us to forgive one another.

Unfortunately too often God’s invitation for us to forgive others is co-opted by others who hold forgiveness up as a precondition for those most in need of freedom. Women who have the courage to say they has been sexually harassed or assaulted are often made to feel responsible for the violence they have experienced. And in response quickly come the demands of others to offer perpetrators forgiveness.

Another example is our demand that groups of people we have systemically oppressed, including First Nations people, forgive and forget the oppression they experienced and continue to experience today. Sometimes the call for truth and reconciliation is to move the discussion into the past tense, into something that has been dealt with so we can move on.

The trouble with such moves toward hasty reconciliation is that it denies the calls from those wronged that they cannot simply move on. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Sometimes we need to sit with the discomfort that some people have open wounds and will continue to bare their wounds which we find unsettling.

 Another way to frame the question, is rather than us demanding those wronged to forgive, is that we show grace and give people the space to work through their issues, to tell their story, to bare their wounds, to demand that we educate ourselves and listen to them. Consider the resurrected Jesus in John 20 who bares his wounds to the disciples. This too is a way we embody grace to one another, giving each other space for healing and flourishing.

Wrapping Up

Wrapping up, I think about the Mayor of Fernwood, how a neighborhood cat brings joy to neighbors. We imagine ways in which Jesus is inviting us into worlds of mutual flourishing, rather than competition or regarding one another as enemies.

When others bring their grievances to us, let us not demand they forgive and forget too hastily, but embody the grace God grants unto us all.

Receive the grace of the Spirit for you, in your situation, in your time of mourning or anxiety. So that we all may live into God’s kingdom of mutual flourishing and love. Amen.