DREAMING OF A BETTER WORLD Homily for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost

September 1, 2013

In her book Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential Schools, Celia Haig-Brown describes a scene at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, when a distraught father, upon visiting the school, where his daughter was interned for 11 months of the year, discovers that, while his daughter is being forced to eat food that she literally cannot choke down, the priests and nuns and staff of the school are dining sumptuously in a separate room.

The man angrily confronted the priest and said, “You expect my daughter to eat this slop while you guys are in there eating like kings and queens?!”

As I often ask in study groups: Who is the Christ figure in this story? In this case, it is obviously not the priests and nuns. It would be the father from the Shuswap nation, passionately intervening on behalf of his child; courageously standing up to the oppressive authority figures; prophetically demanding justice and a different way.

“Sit down at the lowest place” — words of advice from Jesus after observing how some local religious folk automatically assumed they were entitled to sit at or near the head of the table, to have more than others, to luxuriate in the sense that they were more special than others in the eyes of God, entitled to act as though others didn’t really matter, entitled to be oblivious.

Each Gospel writer tells the story of Jesus in a different way, and with a different set of emphases and priorities. Luke’s Gospel reflects a bias towards the poor, the people on the low end of the totem pole – people on the other side of the tracks. Luke reflects God as compassionate and kind, merciful and forgiving, and Jesus as God’s emissary to the whole world – to everyone, not just the elite.

Luke had a real thing about meals and feasts. He obviously saw in them a metaphor of the kingdom of God, and it is Luke who most expresses the Gospel imperative that none be excluded from the table. In Luke’s Gospel we clearly hear Jesus compelling us to open our eyes, to look beyond the fact that we have our own place at the table, and to do everything in our power to invite and include the poor, the handicapped, the excluded (those who are usually invisible or seen as irrelevant), and to relate to others not merely motivated by social ambition or financial reward. Who’s not at the table in our society?

Jesus tells them a parable and the parable reveals how elitism and entitlement lead to abusive attitudes and behavior. It shows how an exaggerated sense of hierarchy can distort the way we relate and lead to attitudes of superiority, and how even something good, like religion, can get distorted, perverted and become something quite evil.

Christianity established a fairly inclusive and non-hierarchical structure, in stark contrast to that of the ruling Roman Empire, and of their former Jewish religion, and of the social norms of the time. In Christ, everyone mattered, everyone had a place, everyone was valued and treated with respect, and as a result the Church attracted far more people from the common element than from the elite, and transformed the social norms and assumptions of the time.

Labour Day is a time for good people to reflect – a time for the have’s to become aware of the plight of the have-nots — a time to address ourselves in faith to issues of social injustice, inequality, discrimination, greed, and oppression – a time to think how we can act as representatives of Christ on behalf of those being oppressed and abused.

Many of us are able to celebrate Labour Day this year as usual with an opportunity for the gift of a free day, but the irony is that as we do so, thousands of workers in Canada and the U.S. are attempting to appeal to big corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s to provide them with a living wage. Also, hundreds of thousands of people are obliged to work on this holiday celebrating Labour, even though their jobs could not be construed as essential, simply because of the greed of the corporations and businesses they work for. In fact, Labour Day is a bit of a joke – and not a funny one – a sad irony that points out the widening gap between rich and poor in North America.

In situations of entrenched inequality and injustice, it takes a prophetic voice to break through, to enable people to break through their blindness and truly see things as they are, in the reality in which God relates to them. This past week we were reminded of a man who had such a vision – a man who had a dream of equality and freedom and harmony and had the courage to share it and live it.

50 years ago last week, on August 28 1963, and 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King stood in front of a crowd of perhaps as many as 250,000 people, after the march on Washington – after weeks and months of the “freedom rides,” in which many African-Americans and others were subjected to horrible attacks and abuses throughout the American South, merely for calling the country to the equality that, according to its constitution, it supposedly believes in.

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, King reminded Americans that the intentions of that Act had still not been realized in American society. He spoke of the ongoing history of injustice, the false promises, the lame advice to continue being patient, and the folly of continuing to perpetuate the injustices of the past, and called America to finally act on the principles and values it supposedly was founded upon.

Then the singer Mahalia Jackson, standing behind him, shouted out: “Tell them about the dream! And then Dr King said:

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the [children] of former slaves and the [children] of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Quoting from the prophet Isaiah he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain will be made low. The rough places wild be made plain, and the crooked places ‘will be made straight. and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.

“I have a dream today . . .” and he concluded with the words of a spiritual which his own ancestors had sung during the slave era: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last!” The huge crowd was ecstatic.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” he said. As the song says, “It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.” In that 16 minute speech, Dr King changed the way millions of people perceived things, changed their hearts and inspired them to embrace a new way. King’s message implied that, if you really are Americans, if you really are Christians, then certain things inevitable follow – it’s what you must do.

If you remember, the theme of the March on Washington was “Jobs and Freedom.” And among their stated objectives were: a program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed; a Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring; a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide; withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination; a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act.

Labour analysts here have figured that a living wage in the Vancouver area would be $19.62/hour. That would barely allow someone to survive just above the poverty line. As it stands however, the minimum wage is $10.25, about half of what it needs to be. Employers need to develop a different sense of responsibility for those whose labour it is using. Typically, to ensure the bottom line is not affected, most businesses respond to pressure toward fair treatment of labour by laying people off, or by drastically reducing hours, by refusing to pay benefits, or by removing their business entirely to places where they don’t require a living wage, typically Third World countries where they’re able to disregard North American standards of labour rights (Wal-Mart has factories in places like China, Swaziland and Pakistan and there have been reports of teenagers in Bangladesh working in sweatshops 80 hours per week at $0.14 per hour, for Walmart supplier Beximco – according to Wikipedia). An estimated 211 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working around the world according to the International Labor Organization (there’s a Labour Day thought to ponder!). Even though their usual argument for worming their way into our communities in the first place is the promise of jobs, it is a false promise in many ways, and such corporations contribute to the destruction of communities in a variety of ways. To such people labour is not human beings, it’s a line item in a budget.

Many of the corporations which now dictate life in our society have long since become soulless entities which use people but care nothing for them, a system on a moral level with the slave plantations of the American South. As Dr King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham jail: “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

Someone needs to challenge and confront these corporations, which in the face of growing poverty and unemployment are making billions, whose executives are paid in the tens of millions, while their own employees, the people who make it happen for them, haven’t got an adequate wage to own a house or raise a family or educate their children.

Once upon a time Anglicans prayed, before they partook of the food before them, “keep us ever mindful of the needs of others.” Recently I was arriving at the till at the grocery store, and a woman cut in front of me right at the till. “Sorry,” she said, but she stayed where she was. If she’d said, “Sorry, I’m a pig,” I might have been more sympathetic, but as Jesus said of those crucifying him “They don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s like, in our time, the spirits of swine have entered into human beings, the reverse of the Gadarene demoniac story in the Gospel (Matthew 8: 28—32). Like pigs, many people just head unconsciously toward the trough, and it doesn’t matter whom they step on to get there. This is the attitude Jesus challenged, and the message of Jesus is intended to return us to our right minds, so we act like people and not swine – so we will be mindful of others and not resentful, envious, or worse, oblivious.

Recently we were at Granville Island. In a store, I heard a teenage girl lament, loud enough for everyone in the store to hear: “I can’t stand all the people!” to which an adult replied: “You’re on the wrong planet, kid.” Labour Day, and the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, not to mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is a call to become aware and appreciative of those around us – to understand what it means to be excluded – to advocate for the poor whose voices get drowned out by the powerful – to reject a way of life that sees people as commodities and justifies living in a careless and selfish way – it’s a call for a better kind of community.

As Dr King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it is the proper role of Christians “to create the kind of tension in society that will help [people] rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

You might say: “What can I do about such huge problems?” You can do a lot! You can try to learn to walk in the shoes of those excluded from the table – you can learn what it’s like to be in that lower place – by educating and informing yourself about what’s going on – by visiting and perhaps volunteering for organizations which are trying to help the homeless, immigrants, the handicapped, etc. – you can write letters and emails to be an advocate for the poor and those who are being taken advantage of. You can speak up and ask to be heard.

You can advocate for a living wage for employees trying to survive in this most expensive place in Canada.

You can use Fair Trade products, and if that means you make do with less so be it. Let us defy the consumer/materialist mindset that pressures us to have the newest and latest thing every few months, and to become bored with what we have almost instantly, and thus let us begin to heal from the addictions generated by consumerism.

You can lobby for young people in this country to have access to a decent education – you can contribute financially toward bursaries for the under-privileged.

You can become more conscious of the impact of your own lifestyle upon the planet and upon those around you: use less; re-cycle; protest clear-cutting of forests, advocate for better water standards, and call for more environmental sensitivity from industry.

You might say “It’s none of my business.” Yes it is! As Martin Luther King said: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Faith is a mandate, a calling, and imperative, not an entitlement ; it is not a means of setting ourselves above or apart from others; it is not an excuse for drifting off into an isolated and uninvolved oblivion. All of us must choose see ourselves as ambassadors of Christ. Let us dare to choose to be the Christ figure in the stories unfolding around us, like that man from the Shuswap Nation who stood up for his daughter. Let us practice and demand ethical and humane practices in business and employment, and let us choose to live with less rather than support corporations that oppress and abuse people in order to cut costs and undersell others.

Like Martin Luther King, we need to confront and persuade people, especially people in power and privilege, to take a higher road – to see those around them differently – to make the change and be the change that frees us all – the rich and the poor — from the slavery of selfishness and indifference, in order to to establish the reality of the Kingdom of God. As Dr King said: Let us “not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+

RCL-appointed readings for Pentecost 16:

Jeremiah 2:4-13 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Psalm 81:1, 10-16 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it. “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever. I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”