Risking Faith, Daring Hope

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd          GC 43                                                Sept. 23, 2018

Isaiah 58:6-9a

My sermon today is more of a reflection on the highlights of the United Church’s national General Council meeting that happened last July. It will draw on some of the worship material from General Council, including the insert you have in your bulletin. We will use these sung and spoken responses throughout my reflection.

Well—it’s now official. General Council approved all of the remits that we, as congregations and Presbyteries overwhelming approved and our church will now move to a 3 court structure as of Jan. 1. This means that Presbytery and Conference will merge into one Region. We have yet to determine our names, but for now we will belong to Region 5. It is slightly smaller than our current Conference, ending at the time zone boundary on the east, no longer including communities east of the time zone, such as Thunder Bay.

Much of our time at General Council was devoted to this these transitional matters as we considered new policies and practices to tighten up and consolidate our national church structure. Near the end of the week, however, things began to heat up and General Council ended in a most unexpected way. But before I get to the end of General Council on Friday night, I would like to take you into the worship of Friday morning. The theme of General Council was Risking Faith, Daring Hope. Friday morning worship carried this theme into its focus on a Christian response to refugees.

 

Risking faith, daring hope,

people on the move.

Refugee, asylum seeker, exile, displaced person, boat people.

You put your lives into the hands of strangers

To get out of danger

Panic rising, pulse racing, no time for tears

 

Say the names.

Iraq, Eritrea, Iran, Congo, Somalia.

Say the names.

Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Colombia.

Name the causes.

Climate change.

War.

Political persecution.

Member of wrong tribe or group.

Queer, trans.

 

Risking faith, daring hope,

      even when cruelty is policy

      even when the maze of bureaucracy keeps the vulnerable

            vulnerable

      even when Empires still crush everything from Bethlehem to Golgotha.

 

(Sung refrain written by Bri-anne Swan, one of the music leaders at General Council. It is copied with her permission:)

Crying out to meet us

Rending down to shreds

Portraits of a kingdom

Maps our kindred tread.

Glory in the pilgrims hour?

Love grows tired of sweetly

Speaking truth to power.

 

Rev. Philip Peacock from the World Communion of Reformed Churches was the preacher for Friday morning and he challenged us not to lose ourselves, or even our God, in the details of transition. After all of our General Council discussions about rules of ministry and sacrament, he asked us if our concern about good order was obliterating our passion for justice. He wondered if our production of texts and documents, even of apologies and justice rhetoric was part of an elaborate ritual that allows us to sidestep our complicity with injustice. That certainly got my attention! It’s a good reminder for us at Westworth as we are tightening up and consolidating our own governance structure.

Philip referred to the analysis of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman on the passage we just heard from Isaiah. Brueggeman notes that there are two distinct threads that can be found within scripture—threads that are not distinct and separate from each other, but that engage and even conflict with each other.

The first thread is the consolidating thread, which is marked by a need to keep the status quo, to maintain order, to assure everyone that all is well. The second thread is prophetic, which seeks to upend the status quo for the sake of those who marginalized in society. It is this second prophetic thread that we find in this reading from Isaiah where we read that God is not impressed with how well the people keep the religious laws and practices. Fasting and prayer mean nothing if we don’t put our faith into practice and feed the hungry. Isaiah even tells us to bring the homeless into our own homes. This takes us beyond charity. It suggests that if we are really committed to God’s call to justice, it will transform our lives.

Philip noted the United Church’s reputation for justice, but he challenged us not to take this for granted. If we get lost in the details of transition and the consolidating thread of order, we may lose sight of the prophetic thread that calls us to address injustice. He said that we can pat ourselves on the backs for sponsoring refugees, but we need to go one step further. Instead of inviting them into our home country and expecting them to adjust to our ways, we may need to look at own privilege. If we can fully listen to others, we may realize that we might have to change some of our ways that keep us privileged and keep them on the margins. Perhaps we need to be displaced and destabilized. This could discombobulate us enough that we might be able to feel the power of the Holy Spirit changing us. We will no longer be the same. The worship liturgy that was used on Friday helps us realize what this might mean for us.

 

Risking faith, daring hope,

we begin to know

            how much we don’t know.

Where is Kazakhstan?

What is the capital of Bangladesh?

How many countries are in Africa?

 

And we begin to confess our complicity in crucifixion.

we want you to leave your conflicts at the border

            we want you to leave your trauma at the border

            we do not see our help as the sunny side of control

            we are eager to teach you our ways, less eager to learn your ways

 

We begin to confess our silences at crucifixion

the ethnic joke unchallenged,

            sexual harassment downplayed

            Black Lives Matter replaced by All Lives Matter

            the long hard work of reconciliation side-lined

 

(Sung refrain:)

Crying out to meet us

Rending down to shreds

Portraits of a kingdom

Maps our kindred tread.

Glory in the pilgrims hour?

Love grows tired of sweetly

            Speaking truth to power.

 

Later on Friday, in the last hour of our meeting of General Council, we began to hear personal experiences of racism in our church. One by one, people of colour moved to the microphone and talked about their experiences. Our Moderator extended the time by another couple of hours so that we could hear everyone who had the courage to speak their truth. A black minister was told by his M & P Committee that he should take whatever the church dishes out because it was only out of pity that they took him from his poor country to be with them in Canada. Another black minister found that some of her congregants refused to shake her hand at the end of the service because they did not want to have a black minister. Yet another black female minister was told by a search committee that they did not hire her because the congregation was not ready for a female minister. I have been told that and I’m sure that others within this congregation have as well. But what the search committee did next was mind-boggling. In less than a month, it recommended a white female minister to the congregation. Another black male minister was called a “black boy who needs to be put in his place” by a member of his congregation. These are only some of the many stories that Indigenous and ethnic minority people have within our United Church.

We were stunned and deeply saddened when we heard these stories. How could this be in our beloved church? As we listened, we realized that we have much work to do. First, we need to recognize our own privilege—whether that be because of our skin colour or our economic standing or our educational level or many other sources of privilege. The more privilege we have, the more difficult it is to see how we contribute to the oppression of those on the margins. I like to think that I’m sensitive to issues of marginalization, but I’m being challenged right now to consider how my white skin privilege is keeping ethnic minority Presbyters on the margins.

We all felt the Spirit moving mightily during those last few hours of General Council. It was certainly upsetting, but there was also a sense of hope. These people bravely and vulnerably stood at the mike and told us about their painful stories. They trusted us with these stories because they hoped we would believe them and be changed by them.

Rev. Paul Walfall spoke Friday afternoon and his speech opened up these stories. He said that we need to do more than simply ask, who is missing from the table. We need to ask, “Who are you at the table?” If someone is invited to the table as a guest, they will be expected to graciously eat whatever food is placed before them. But if they are invited as a member of the family, they will be expected to help plan the menu and even cook. Then our feast at God’s table will be so much richer and diverse, reflecting the face of everyone who comes to the table.

I leave us with this question: How might these General Council challenges affect us at Westworth?

 

Refugee, asylum seeker, exile, displaced person, boat people.

Risking faith, daring hope:

we see you, hungry

      we see you, thirsty

      we see you, naked

      we see you, sick

      we see you.

      we see you.

 

(Sung refrain:)

Crying out to meet us

Rending down to shreds

Portraits of a kingdom

Maps our kindred tread.

Glory in the pilgrims hour?

Love grows tired of sweetly

Speaking truth to power.

 

[1] reflection content and liturgy adapted from General Council 43 worship materials and sermons.