Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Feb 2, 2020
Micah 6:1-8; Acts 27:18-20, 27-28:2, 7-10
The setting of Micah 6 is a hearing in a law court. The plaintiff who has been wronged is God. Israel, who has been charged with wronging God, is the defendant. The mountains, hills and the very foundations of the earth are the witnesses to the people’s misdeeds.
What was Israel doing that was so egregious to God? In the age of the prophet Micah, wealthy landowners thrived at the expense of small peasant farmers. The gap between the rich and the poor was increasing. The political and religious leaders were more concerned with their own personal gain than with ensuring justice throughout the land for all of its inhabitants. We haven’t come very far.
The people of Israel then asked what they could do. Should they bring piles of gold to the temple? Thousands of rams to sacrifice? How could they appease their God? The compensation decided in this court scene was not sacrifice. It was not a monetary sum to pay off an angry God. Instead, it was an offering of compassion and justice in the name of a merciful God for the most vulnerable in their midst: do justice for them, love kindness for the stranger and walk humbly with your God.
Our reading from Acts speaks of the Indigenous people of Malta, who offered “unusual kindness” for the sailors, soldiers and prisoners, including Paul, who were shipwrecked on Malta. This kindness included welcoming, feeding and housing the 276 people from the ship. When they eventually set sail again, the Maltese gave them all the provisions they would need for their next leg of their trip. The Maltese were not yet Christians, but they are honoured in our scripture as examples of those through whom God saved the shipwrecked passengers through kindness that far surpassed expectation.
There is another story of non-Christian Indigenous people offering unusual kindness to strangers arriving by ship exhausted with no resources to survive. This story begins in the Scottish Highlands. There, Angus and Elizabeth MacKenzie became desperate. They paid exorbitant rent, and their crops had failed. Threats about ridding the land of the crofters was spreading. What was later to be called the clearances was being fuelled by the British Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, which was sending missionaries into the highlands to “civilize” them. The highlanders were called barbarians and soon their tartans were outlawed, their bagpipes and fiddles burned as instruments of the devil, and their Gaelic language considered a cause of their savageness. Tellingly, the same missionaries sent to the North American Indigenous peoples were sent to the Highlands because the missionaries considered the culture and language of the Indigenous peoples and of the Highlanders to be similar and in need of eradication.
Angus and Elizabeth knew that things were only going to get worse. Then, they heard about land in the New World that had been cleared and was standing empty, waiting for farmers. They decided to make a run for it. They made their way to Ullapool, where they arranged passage on the Hector Ship to Nova Scotia in 1773. But the voyage was rough, small pox broke out, some died, and they were beset by a storm that blew them almost back to Scotland. By the time they arrived in Pictou, it was Sept. 15—far too late to plant crops. The promised cleared land was virgin forest. And it was not empty—Indigenous people lived there. Snow was coming and they had no idea how to survive. They had also heard about the dreaded bears. One day, they saw a strange-looking animal near their camp and were surprised at how small bears were. Nevertheless, they shot it and when they examined it, its fur seemed to attack their fingers. That was the day they learned the difference between a bear and a porcupine.
It was the Micmac who showed them unusual kindness and took them through that first winter. They brought them meat, taught them how to hunt, and how to make and use snowshoes. Were it not for the unusual kindness of the Micmac, I would not be here today, because Angus and Elizabeth MacKenzie were my great, great, great grandparents.
As someone whose settler ancestors’ very survival was due to the unusual kindness of the First Nations, I have much to learn and a tremendous debt to pay. To love kindness takes us far beyond a kind word or gesture. Micah calls us to the type of unusual kindness demonstrated by the Indigenous Maltese and First Nations. It is a kindness that goes far beyond society’s expectations; that stuns others by its radical generosity.
In honour of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, I offer you one more story of unusual kindness—this time offered by a Christian. In last week’s news, you may have heard about Prince Charles visiting the tomb of his grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg. In spite of great hardships, her accomplishments were outstanding. She was born deaf in 1885 and yet learned to lip-read and speak English, German, French and Greek. She and her family were forced into exile a few times during wars. Later in life, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and forcibly held in a sanitorium for two years, during which time her daughters all married German princes. She tried many times to leave but was not allowed and could not attend these weddings. When WWII broke out, her sons-in-law were fighting on the German side while her son Philipp served in the British Royal Navy.
Throughout these successive life crises, Alice drew deeply upon her Christian faith. She was baptized Anglican, but converted to the Greek Orthodox Church in her 40s. In the midst of her difficulties, she committed her life to service, helping in a charity store for Greek refugees, organizing two shelters for orphaned children and working with the poor while living in a small flat and giving away most of her possessions. When the Nazis occupied Athens, they rounded up 60,000 Jews and deported them to concentration camps where all but 2,000 died. Alice risked her life to take in & hide a Jewish widow and her children. She also contravened the curfew order by walking the streets distributing rations to police and children. When she was warned that she could be hit by a stray bullet she replied, “they tell me that you don’t hear the shot that kills you and in any case I am deaf. So why worry about that?” After the war, she founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns called the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.
Alice’s unwavering dedication to kindness, even in the midst of war, would have seemed unusual to all around her. And yet, to her, all that she offered to others was a natural extension of her Christian faith. As God sacrificially loves us, so we sacrificially love others. When Alice combined a passion for justice with humility, her sacrificial acts of kindness were a logical response. To her, there was nothing unusual about them. When discussing how his mother hid the Cohen family, Prince Philip stated, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”
A couple of weeks ago, I saw another example of loving kindness walking hand in hand with humility and a passion for justice. I taught a course at Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, the United Church educational centre for Indigenous ministers, and was awed by the wisdom and resilience of the student ministers. They minister with very few resources while dealing with crisis upon crisis, including multiple suicides of youth. To support Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre is to support those whose ministries offer what we might see as unusual kindness coupled with advocacy for justice. The students also taught me about humility. They listened intently and offered wisdom quietly.
When walking humbly, loving kindness and doing justice move hand in hand, the mountains and the hills breathe a sigh of relief. All of Creation witnesses that healing happens when the holy trinity of humility, kindness and justice come together in an ever-flowing stream.