LESSONS FROM NAAMAN’S HEALING AND BLACK HISTORY MONTH

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Sermon presented in 2012 at the Anglican Parish of St. Andrew and St. Mark, Dorval, now the Parish of the Resurrection, St. Andrew and St. Mark.

2 Kings 5 1 – 16 – The account of Naaman’s healing

Heavenly Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight. Amen.

Today’s Old Testament reading provides valuable lessons on how we receive God’s grace and blessings when we are prepared to reverse commonly held beliefs about people who are different – in race, social status and occupation. The account of Naaman’s healing also gives a voice to the marginalized and shows how, as St. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians, “God has chosen the things which the world regards as destitute of influence, in order to put its powerful things to shame.” (1 Cor 1:27 Weymouth New Testament version)

These lessons are particularly relevant during Black History Month, a time when an appeal is made to read the “missing pages” of history of people of Black African descent, a people who have endured centuries of material oppression and political marginalisation, and call to all of us to celebrate the contribution of Black people to the world.

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The account of Naaman’s healing teaches us many things –

We’re all vulnerable – regardless of our social standing

We are told in verse 1 that Naaman is a great man, respected by many, including the King of Syria, his boss. This respect is based on his status as the captain of the victorious army of Syria. But, we are told, and this is a big ‘but’, that he has leprosy – a disease that relegates people in Biblical times to ‘outcast’ status. Therefore, we learn that in spite of Naaman’s social status, his illness in the form of leprosy is a reminder that regardless of our station in life, human beings are all vulnerable and flawed in some way, and in need of divine intervention.

Solutions can come from unlikely sources

Then in verse 2, the solution comes from an unlikely and seemingly ‘weak’ source – an enslaved Israelite girl who was captured by Naaman’s army and is assigned to serve Naaman’s wife. We are led to believe that the slave girl doesn’t hate those who captured her. Driven by a courageous faith in God, she seeks a way for God to be glorified in her oppressive situation. By declaring that Naaman can be healed through a prophet in Samaria in the land of Israel, she offers the possibility for the oppressor and the oppressed to worship and serve the same God.

We can jeopardize the flow of God’s blessing by observing socially accepted beliefs and practices

Then in the ensuing verses, we see how several factors come into play that potentially jeopardize the flow of God’s blessing to Naaman. Social barriers, the effect of political oppression, ethno-centric biases and distorted human beliefs about the knowledge and wisdom of people classed as being of “low social standing” all come into play.

  • The social order of that time prevents people from directly addressing other people of different rank. God’s inspired message to the young slave girl about how Naaman could be healed is first spoken by the slave to her mistress who is Naaman’s wife. Naaman’s wife then speaks to Naaman, who then speaks to his boss, the King of Syria. The King of Syria then writes a letter to the King of Israel – the country where the healing prophet resides. We note that in the letter, the Syrian king requests not the prophet, but the King of Israel, to heal Naaman. The expected healing by divine intervention of the prophet as told by the slave is therefore lost in the maze of ‘respectful rules of communication’, social ranks and political correctness.

 

  • So we see that Naaman and the King of Syria are willing to accept the solution to Naaman’s problem, but only through the intervention of people of high social standing and rank. In exchange for Naaman’s healing is the offer of material gifts of significant value: 10 talents of silver, 6,000 shekels of gold and 10 changes of clothes. We learn that openness to the grace and healing blessing of God can be marred by the power and influence of material things that entice and induce the physical senses. At this point, the offer of divine intervention is almost lost.

 

  • We note in verses 6 and 7 that the King of Israel reacts with suspicion and outrage to the King of Syria’s letter and Naaman’s presence in his court. How could the king and captain of the dominant nation of Syria that plundered Israel now turn to Israel for help? The King of Israel is suspicious, outraged and anguished. He tears his clothes – an act declaring his grief and mourning as he perceives that the leaders of the oppressive nation of Syria are again attempting to assert their power over his nation. The King of Israel’s reaction shows us how military and political oppression by one nation and race dominating another not only cause suspicion, hostility and poor communication among nations, but it also has adverse psychological effects on the people of the oppressed nation or race.

 

The faithfulness of God’s people is crucial for His will to be done on earth

BUT in spite of it all, it is the faithfulness of God’s people – the slave girl and the persistence of the prophet Elisha that predominate. Elisha’s faithfulness to God prompts him to speak up when he hears of Naaman’s need and the anguish of the King of Israel. So Elisha summons Naaman and invites him to “see that there is a prophet in Israel” – physical healing as well as divine revelation are offered. We’re reminded that God’s people must not, as St. Paul says to the Galatian Christians, “grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap” (Gal.6 v 9). We, like Elisha, must persist in being conduits of God’s goodness and healing, even to those who are in a position to dominate and exploit.

But Naaman persists with his belief about his social standing and expects to be treated with ‘honour’ by the prophet Elisha. He is disappointed that he is not invited into Elisha’s house. To make matters worse, Naaman is appalled that it is Elisha’s servants who give the healing message instead Elisha himself.

It gets even worse when Naaman’s ethno-centric biased belief emerges. In an angry rage, he questions whether the river of Jordan, which is in the land of the Israelites – the nation the Syrian army plundered, could be better than the rivers of Damascus in the land of Syria. This is not dissimilar to the disdainful comments often heard today about the qualifications of people and products coming from the so-called “Third World” countries.

We all need to face our own beliefs in order to accept the Truth of God

BUT in the midst of Naaman’s rage, Naaman has an epiphany, a moment of truth when he confronts not only the truth about his own distorted beliefs, but the truth of God’s unrelenting desire to heal him and make him whole. This moment is made possible from an unlikely source – Naaman’s own servants. His servants point out his biases and beliefs about social status, saying that had the prophet spoken directly to Naaman, Naaman would have accepted the same message that the prophet’s servants gave in regard to his healing.

Desiring to overcome his own biases and prejudices, Naaman puts his ego aside and follows through on the instructions from Elisha’s servants. He dips seven times in the Jordan River and is healed – so much so that his skin is like that of a little child. WOW! A physical and spiritual rebirth occurs when Naaman embraces God’s grace and healing power. This happens only after he is prepared to disband his beliefs about social status and human power, to release his ethno-centric bias and to submit to the advice and wisdom of persons of lower rank, who admittedly are God’s chosen conduits.

Seek spiritual revelation first

Naaman, now forever grateful for God’s healing grace, commits himself to serve the God of Israel. Naaman steps into another realm of spiritual revelation. God is real. God is good. God is powerful. God’s power works through the oppressed, those of lesser rank, the marginalized to heal him, a man of military might and power. Naaman now has a testimony and he appreciates those who have led him to his physical healing and spiritual revelation.

Blessings come from unlikely sources

But then, he offers a gift to Elisha the prophet. Elisha refuses, because he sees himself only as a conduit of God’s grace to Naaman. I wonder, is the desire to give a gift an act of “noblesse oblige,” a remnant of Naaman’s old beliefs about status and power? I don’t quite know. But I certainly am reminded that our richest blessings very often come from people who we perceive to be in a disadvantaged position. Some of the most materially disadvantaged and oppressed people in this world are far more spiritually rich than many of us and will give the best of what they have, with the expectation of nothing in return.

Black History Month

There are many truths that emerge from the account of Naaman’s healing that are cause for reflection and action, particularly during Black History Month.

There is a parallel between the account of Naaman’s healing and the history of Black people in the Caribbean and North America. The story of Naaman occurs against the backdrop of the dominance of Syria over Israel, the taking of slaves and a rigid social and class structure that emerged. This is quite similar to the conquest and plundering of the African continent by European countries beginning in the mid-15th century in their quest for economic and political dominance. What ensued from this was four centuries of capture, brutalization and marginalisation of an estimated 12 million Black Africans who were transported and enslaved in the European colonies in the Caribbean and also in the United States of America and yes, slavery, even here in Canada.

We see in the account of Naaman’s healing, that it is the marginalized – the slave girl and people of lower social rank – the servants of Naaman and Elisha, and even Elisha himself – who are instrumental in bringing about Naaman’s healing and transformation. We don’t know the names of the slave girl or the servants, but we do know that the quality of Naaman’s life improved because of the role played by these persons of lesser rank. Similarly, people of Black African descent in the Caribbean and North America have made spectacular contributions to the improvement of the quality of life of European nations and to their descendants in North America and the Caribbean. But as in the Biblical text, their names are not frequently mentioned nor is their contribution given the level of deserved recognition and credit in mainstream history books.

This leads us to the reason why there is the need for Black History Month and the creation of important initiatives such as the “Missing Pages” project here in Québec, Canada.

Black History Month has its roots in ‘Negro History Week’ that was declared in February 1926 by Dr. Carter Woodson, a Black American graduate of Harvard University. Dr. Woodson saw the need for the methodical study of the life of African Americans and their history. Negro History Week has evolved to become Black History Month and is an observance of the history of descendants of Black African slaves in a number of countries outside of Africa.

The “Missing Pages” project has its genesis in a request by a class of young secondary school students who were studying Black history at the Da Costa Hall summer school in July 1993. These eager students of Mrs. Junia Wilson questioned the general absence of Blacks from the school textbooks. Personnel from the Ministère de l’éducation heard the complaints of these young Black students, recognized the need and acted to introduce the relevant materials found in “Some Missing Pages.” Again, it is those who are marginalized who speak up and offer a solution.

Black people in the Bible

Euro-centric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in the Bible. In the same way that we gain an understanding of the role of the young slave girl in bringing God’s word of healing to Naaman, so too must the Church gain an understanding of Black personalities in the Bible and to fully acknowledge their contribution to the spreading of the good news.

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This turns me now to the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, an unnamed Black man in Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 8:26-39) We are told that the angel of the Lord speaks to the apostle Philip, telling him to go to Gaza. In obedience, Philip goes to Gaza and there he meets the Black Ethiopian man, who has great authority under Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He is in charge of all of the Queen’s treasure, and he came to Jerusalem to worship and on his return journey, he is sitting in his chariot reading the Bible. Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian.

We learn that this Black Ethiopian is an important government official – a man of high rank and respect. We also see that he loves reading God’s Word. We see how God brings these two men together. From a social class viewpoint, Philip was from a position of lower rank and the Ethiopian was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Greek and the eunuch was African. Now get this – neither man saw these distinctions in each other. They focused on their common quest to know God. Together, both men, rich and poor, White and Black, share the good news of God’s message. God then uses Philip to lead the eunuch into an encounter with Christ, he is converted and baptized promptly. We can only imagine the large number of Ethiopians who heard the gospel message and were converted, because of this one man’s testimony.

As in the account of Naaman’s healing, we learn from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion, that the revelation of God’s truth is accepted when barriers of social status, ethno-centric biases and distinctions are dropped, as in the case of Naaman or are absent, as in the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The way to the truth is complicated for Naaman but straightforward and easy for the Ethiopian eunuch. Black History Month offers us the opportunity to step out of the ignorance of the history of Black people and accept the truths about their contribution to our world and our Church.

Contribution of Black people

Some of the many machines and devices we use on a daily basis were invented by Black people during the nineteenth century, a time when Black people were largely regarded as inferior and incapable of being educated. The air conditioning unit, the stove, typewriter, thermostat control, stethoscope, radiator, small pox vaccine, the lawn mower, railway air brakes, the golf tee, cellular phones are just a few inventions that came from people of Black African descent. Ref: http://www.blackinventions101.com/inventionslist.html

Here in Canada, Elijah McCoy, “The real McCoy”, invented a number of devices to lubricate locomotive engines. Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female attorney in North America and first woman publisher in Canada. Charles Drew attended McGill University medical school in where he graduated with honors. He pioneered blood transfusions and established the Red Cross Blood Bank.

Like Naaman’s slave girl, his servants, Elisha and his servants, Black Canadian soldiers in World Wars 1 and 2 looked beyond their own oppressive conditions of racial segregation, injustice and marginalization, to fight for this country and the world in the quest for justice and the greater good of all, including their oppressors here in Canada.

The Anglican Church and Black people

There was a time when Anglican Church – clergy and lay people, like Naaman and the King of Syria upheld and perpetuated discriminatory beliefs about social status and ethno-centric superiority. The Anglican planter class in the USA and in the colonies of the West Indies refused to have their slaves baptized as this would make Black people spiritually ‘equal’ to White people. We know that the Anglican Church was part of the oppressive colonial government institutions and made no attempt prior to the early to mid-19th century to declare their abhorrence of slavery and racial discrimination. Here in Canada, we learn that Black Anglicans were relegated to their own congregations and lay-readers in the 19th century were only permitted to read the Bible and lead prayers under restrictive conditions. A case in point is Joseph Leonard, a Black Anglican lay-reader in the Brindley Town settlement in Nova Scotia, who inspired by God, went way beyond those restrictive conditions and was flatly refused permission by Bishop Inglis to be ordained a minister.

Ref: http://www.blackloyalist.com/canadiandigitalcollection/people/religious/leonard.htm

It is the persistence of evangelical missionaries – the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and other denominations that were not highly regarded at the time, as well as the persistent faith of marginalized Black Christians – that shook the conscience of the “established” Anglican Church in the early to mid-19th century. This led to a reversal in the Anglican Church’s position on slavery and the offer in 2006, of a formal, unequivocal apology for the role it played in the slave trade and slavery. Like Naaman, the Anglican Church has had its epiphany – its moment of truth when the voices of people, considered to be of low social and religious status, were heeded and this led to a new revelation and era for the Anglican Church.

Today, Anglican Churches in the Caribbean integrate local, afro-centric cultural elements in the liturgy. Many educational institutions under the aegis of the Anglican Church turn out scholars and citizens who continue to make a sterling contribution to their communities in the West Indies and in North America. In the Anglican Church in Canada, people of Black African descent comprise a significant percentage of many congregations. They play an active role in the life of the Church and in advancing its work at home and abroad.

Concluding remarks

And now, a little bit about my own story.

I am the daughter of forefathers and foremothers who endured the harsh conditions of the Atlantic slave trade, who suffered the lashes of the whips of slave masters in the pelting heat of the sun on the sugar plantations in Jamaica and who later lived under oppressive and limiting social and economic conditions of post-emancipation colonialism.

I was born in a vastly different world from that of my enslaved fore parents and of own my parents. I was born right after Jamaica became independent from Great Britain. I won’t deny that I grew up learning that to succeed in a British-based education system required political correctness, British cultural adaptations and the stifling of Jamaican cultural expressions in certain contexts. Thankfully, much of that has changed since I was a child. I have benefited tremendously from the best quality educational and professional opportunities that Jamaica has to offer. Interestingly, this has been recognized by the Government of Canada, which continues to quietly recruit professionals like myself to live and work in this country.

Like any other person of Black African descent coming from what many Canadians refer to as a “Third World” country, I have been stereotyped and insulted by racist co-workers, government officials and people with ethno-centric biases. And this, in spite of all I have achieved and contributed to this country. Even with the concerted efforts to make this great country a model of inclusion and multi-culturalism, racism is still a problem in Canada.

HOWEVER, I choose today to pay far more attention to the deep pride, appreciation and gratitude I have as I stand before you here today.

  • Pride and appreciation for my forefathers and foremothers whose faith in God inspired their endurance and gave them the hope that succeeding generations would have a better life;
  • I am grateful that live in an era where the history of Black people is now written truthfully and spoken about openly;
  • I deeply appreciate the limitless opportunities I have in this great, free and fair country, Canada, which has given me my beloved Canadian family, who have opened their arms and folded me in their loving embrace;
  • Most of all, I express my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to God, whose promise to Abraham “to be the father of many nations” is now a reality. This promise is also a promise of inclusion, that all people of all nations, races and social rank can be united as one universal family under a gracious, loving Father God.

As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual congregation, may these reflections cause us to rejoice in our diversity and renew our commitment to make inclusion our reality here and in the world.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this morning. May God bless you all!

Christ in you, the hope of glory.  That’s why glory matters.

@twitter.com/Glorymatters

Identity, Inclusion and Love – Thoughts on Baptism and Black History Month

Approximate reading time: 20 minutes

The following is the text of a sermon delivered by Camille N. Isaacs-Morell on 19 February 2017 at the Anglican Parish of St. Andrew and St. Mark, Dorval, Québec, Canada.

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Today we are celebrating Black History Month and the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  Both these events cause us to focus on the themes of identity and inclusion.  Through baptism a person is identified as a child of God and welcomed into the family of Christian believers.  Black History Month celebrates the identity and contribution of persons of Black African descent.

Today, Ella will be marked with water, a sign that Ella belongs to God, is a follower of Christ and a member of the fellowship of Christians.

Like Ella, I was given my Christian identity through the sacrament of baptism and the promise made by my parents and godparents that I would follow the way of Christ. Like Ella I am female and a citizen of Canada.  But there are other names to identify me that are different from Ella’s.

I am the descendant of Black African slaves who worked on sugar plantations in Jamaica centuries ago.  Among my ancestors are Jewish, Irish and German free men who made their way to Jamaica two centuries ago to seek their fortune.  I identify as a Black person with cultural ties to Jamaica.

Finding one’s identity is a personal and public issue.  Being who you are and who you associate with can be problematic – especially if you are a Muslim worshipping in a mosque in Quebec City or if you are a Black male living anywhere in the United States of America.

The questions of identity are not new.  At the time of Paul’s writing, the early Church in Corinth was dealing with identity issues.  The Church in Corinth was a wealthy congregation comprised of persons of diverse backgrounds, religious experiences and affiliations.  In the verses we read today from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, he warns Christians there against basing their identity on affiliations with human leaders and creating factions and alliances built on human definitions.  Paul instructs them to base their identity on Christ and on Christ alone, as Christ is the foundation of the Church.

Laws also play an important role in defining who we are.  Laws that govern nations, define religious behaviour and create associations and clubs, shape the way people behave, think and act.  In our reading from Leviticus, when Moses receives the law, God establishes the people of Israel’s identity as a reflection of God’s essence.  They are to be holy as God is holy.  The people of Israel, God’s people, are to differentiate themselves from all other people by adhering to the law that requires them to respect their parents, honour the Sabbath, give to the poor and the stranger, refrain from stealing, abstain from profanity, oppression, injustice, hate and revenge.

By following God’s law, the people of Israel claim their identity as God’s chosen, holy people, set apart and favoured by God.

And here comes the big, huge, hairy problem of “us” and “them” that inevitably arises when we address questions of identity and the complex maze of diversity through which we are called to journey together as we build an inclusive society that ensures justice and respect for all of its citizens.

So although laws intrinsically define the identity of nations, religious groups and associations, laws also have the potential to exclude and discriminate against “them” who are different from “us”.  And exclusion and discrimination lead to ignorance, stereotyping and injustice.  This is why and how racism insidiously thrives in many social institutions.

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Black History Month was established in 1926 with the aim of overcoming the issues of identity and exclusion of people of Black African descent, whose 12 million ancestors were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were enslaved for more than three centuries.  Here we are, 90 years later, with valid reasons justifying the need to have Black History Month.

The economic contribution of slave-based labour and the slave trade to the world is still conspicuously absent from mainstream history books. The financial proceeds of trading in slaves lined the pockets of plantation owners and fuelled the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Slavery was a highly profitable investment which yielded rates of return that compared favourably with most investment opportunities in manufacturing.  For example, a study conducted by Alfred Conrad and John Meyer and reported in The Economist magazine, indicates that slave capital yielded a return on investment as high as 13% compared to a yield of 6% to 8% on the railroads.

We still need Black History Month because the many inventions and accomplishments of persons of Black African descent have yet to be widely acknowledged and publicized beyond the four weeks in February every year.

  • Did you know the first Canadian to be awarded the Victorian Cross for gallantry was Alexander Roberts Dunn, a Black soldier from Nova Scotia, who served in the Crimean War?
  • There’s Elijah McCoy, the Black Canadian inventor and engineer.  His 57 patents including lubrication devices for steam engines greatly contributed to workers’ safety, transportation systems and industrial development in Canada.
  • In more recent times, we have Henry T. Sampson, the inventor of the cell phone.  There’s the trio of Black women mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose work at NASA contributed significantly to space travel safety.

The Church also needs Black History Month. Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in Biblical history, in Jesus’ ministry and in the spreading of the Gospel.  There is Moses’ wife Zipporah and the Queen of Sheba among several Old Testament personalities.  There is Simon of Cyrene, the Black man who helped Jesus carry his cross.  Mary Magdalene was in Jesus’ entourage.  The Ethiopian eunuch, a man of great influence, accepted Jesus Christ as His Lord and Saviour and continued on his way back to Africa, where I am sure he spread the Good News.

The systemic exclusion of the contribution, presence and truthful history of Black people has served to perpetuate negative perceptions of the Black race and has undermined the progress of Black people everywhere.

Black History Month is a valiant effort to highlight the on-going need for the inclusion of the missing pages in the world’s history books and seeks to remind us and educate us about how we came to this place….together.

But Black History month is not enough.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement championed the need to enact anti-discriminatory laws and affirmative action.  These laws acknowledge the presence of visible minorities and legislate the prevention of exclusion from economic opportunity and social participation on the basis of race.

The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its militant demands for formal dialogue and recognition tell us that the war on identity and inclusion is still being waged.  Race riots, reports of racial profiling and the disparities in the economic and social conditions of visible minorities are persistent reminders that anti-discriminatory laws don’t guarantee inclusion and justice.

So laws are not enough because they only provide minimum standards and cannot bring us up to be the best we can be.

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Turning to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is preaching His Sermon on the Mount, where he declared earlier that He has not come to abolish Roman Civilian Law or the Religious Law upheld by the Prophets.  We hear Jesus refer to Religious Law – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – straight out of the book of Deuteronomy.  He then refers to Roman Civilian Law which gives a person of high social rank the right to use his left hand to slap the cheek of the person of lower social rank.  Jesus also refers to the law allowing a Roman soldier to force a citizen to carry a Roman soldier’s heavy coat for a maximum of one mile.

Both Religious Law and Roman Civilian Law are exact and clearly define their versions of justice and the rights of persons.

Jesus surprisingly instructs His listeners to do more than what these oppressive laws permit.  We are to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and above all, we are to love our enemies.  He says that it is by loving our enemies that we become perfect like God.  Perfect love is God’s true identity.  If our identity is founded on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our lives must reflect the love of God.

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And what is love?  Regardless of how you define it, love always points us to the highest good.  Love is given full expression in the way we treat people, individually and collectively.  So we cannot speak about love without speaking about inclusion, justice and the rule of law.

I must admit that it took me a really long time to understand Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek.  But on the day that I did understand it, I gained a whole new perspective on how Christians should respond to oppressive laws and acts of injustice.

As I mentioned earlier, under Roman law at the time of Jesus’ ministry, persons of higher social rank had the right to slap the face of a person of lower social rank – but the slap had to be given with the left hand as the right hand was reserved for religious actions and could not be defiled.  So if someone wanted to slap another person in the face with their left hand, they would have to deliver the blow to the right cheek.  If the person receiving the slap were to turn his left cheek as Jesus suggested, the slapper would have to use their right ‘holy’ hand to deliver the blow.  By following Jesus’ suggestion to turn the left cheek to be slapped, it would mean that the oppressor would have to stop and think before striking again.  He would have to consider firstly, if he should defile his right ‘holy’ hand.  Secondly, and more importantly, he would hopefully question himself as to whether or not his action was right and fair to the other person.

 

So what I understand is that Jesus was advocating a radical form of nonviolent action as the line of defense to oppressive laws and injustice.  This principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion is meant to appeal to the conscience of the oppressor to consider whether or not the law is fair and serves the highest good of all citizens – regardless of their race, gender, religion or any other differentiating criteria.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied Jesus’ principle of nonviolent protest and moral suasion in the Civil Rights Movement.  Under Dr. King’s leadership, millions of Black persons took to the streets for peaceful protests as well as acts of civil disobedience.  A major factor in the success of the movement was the strategy of protesting for equal rights without using violence.  And where did this lead to?  Thankfully racial discrimination was outlawed and laws forbidding injustice and upholding racial equality were enacted.

Enshrined within Jesus’ radical teaching on nonviolent protest and moral suasion is the principle of love, which is the spirit of the law and the foundation of justice.  Love is the guiding principle of the law that God gave to Moses.  I daresay that laws in free and fair societies are enacted to uphold the principles of justice and the highest good of its citizens.

But in spite of anti-discriminatory laws, racism and injustice still persist.  Why?

The answer is simple.  Love cannot be legislated.  Genuine love cannot be enforced by the law.  Love comes from the heart and motivates right actions that go beyond the limits and requirements of the law.

Jesus is calling us, His people, to enshrine the principle of love in all our actions.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love never fails.”  When all else fails, love, like God eternal, never fails.  When everything else is lost, God’s love is all we have left.  Paul also tells the Christians in Rome that “God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.”  The capacity to love comes from God.  Love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.  We are channels of God’s love.

For my part, as a Black person who has had to confront racism and injustice, I am reassured that my identity as a Christian, is founded and built on the love of God.  Like the crucified Christ, I must forgive and love those who don’t know that what they are doing is not loving, respectful or inclusive.  This means that I must love and forgive the Christian woman I overheard saying that the ‘N’ word is not at all offensive.  I must love and forgive the defense lawyer and judge who attempted to entice me to play the race card in a court of law.  I must love and forgive the city official who considers my outrage at the selective removal of racist graffiti on public property as being my problem, not hers or the city’s.  I must love and forgive Canadian border agents who harass me when I am travelling alone, but welcome me without any problem when I am travelling with my White Canadian husband.  I must love and forgive my co-worker who openly declared that I need to trade in marijuana in order to give credibility to my Jamaican identity.

The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit empowers me to love and forgive.

Black History Month reminds me that the love of God conquers all.

It is the love of God that sustained my enslaved foreparents throughout their journey to freedom.  It is the love of God and respect for human dignity that motivated the Christian Abolitionist movement.  It is the love of God that motivated the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. King who enlisted the support of persons of other religions and races to advocate for inclusion and equal rights for all.  It is the love of God that motivates us here today as a fellowship of Christian believers to build an inclusive Church, nation and world.

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Today, as Ella is marked with the water of baptism, she receives the mark of her Christian identity, which is the love of God.  We join with Ella’s parents Amanda and Mark and all of her family, to make a commitment to nurture Ella in the ways of God’s love that transcends race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, health status and all the other social identifiers.

As we lovingly encircle Ella and her family today, it doesn’t matter one bit that there are differences in our racial or cultural identities.  We are affirming our common identity as God’s people – a people committed to love, justice and the highest good of all.

As we kneel at the altar to partake in Holy Communion, let us remember that Jesus’ death is the greatest act of love ever committed for all humanity.  For this reason, we come to the Lord’s Table as equals, loved unconditionally by God and as members of the whole human race.

I end with the words of Nelson Mandela –

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Thanks be to God and to you for giving me the opportunity to speak this morning.

I love you. May God bless you all!  Amen.

Bible lessons for Black History Month

Euro-centric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in the Bible.  Christians need to gain an understanding of Black personalities in the Bible and to fully acknowledge their contribution to the spreading of the good news. The account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, an unnamed Black man in Acts of the Apostles is a good case in point.  See Acts 8: 26 – 40

We are told that the angel of the Lord speaks to the apostle Philip, telling him to go to Gaza. In obedience, Philip goes to Gaza and there he meets the Black Ethiopian man, who has great authority under Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He is in charge of all of the Queen’s treasure, and he came to Jerusalem to worship and on his return journey, he is sitting in his chariot reading the Bible. Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian.

TAKEAWAYS

  • Social, cultural and ethnic differences are not barriers when people are determined to know God and understand His truth.

We learn that this Black Ethiopian is an important government official – a man of high rank and respect. We also see that he loves reading God’s Word. We see how God brings these two men together. From a social class viewpoint, Philip was from a position of lower rank and the Ethiopian was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Greek and the eunuch was African.

Now get this – neither man saw these distinctions in each other. They focused on their common quest to know God.

Together, both men, rich and poor, White and Black, share the good news of God’s message. God then uses Philip to lead the eunuch into an encounter with Christ, he is converted and baptized promptly. We can only imagine the large number of Ethiopians who heard the gospel message and were converted, because of this one man’s testimony.

  • See the BIG picture – the common good of all, regardless of their ethnicity, ideology or religious belief.  Focus on what’s important – use your God-given abilities and opportunities to help resolve problems that undermine the common good. 

In the story of Naaman’s healing, it was Naaman’s slave girl, Naaman’s servants, Elisha the prophets and Elisha’s servants who overlooked the conditions of their social status and brought the message of healing to Naaman, a man of high rank and influence, who was from Syria – a nation that had gone to war against Israel.  Even though the slave, Elisha and his servants knew that Naaman was a pagan and was part of an oppressive regime, this did not impede their mission to bring physical healing and spiritual revelation to him.  As a result, Naaman declared that he would serve the God of Israel and we can imagine that he used his position of influence and testimony of healing to bring others to God.   See 2 Kings 5: 1-16.

Like Naaman’s slave girl, his servants, Elisha and his servants, Black Canadian soldiers in World Wars 1 and 2 looked beyond their own oppressive conditions of racial segregation, injustice and marginalization, to fight for this country and the world in the quest for justice and the greater good of all, including their oppressors in Canada at the time.

  • Black History Month offers us the opportunity to step out of the ignorance of the history of Black people and accept the truths about their contribution to our world and the spreading of the Good News.

During Black History Month, let us express heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to God, whose promise to Abraham “to be the father of many nations” is now a reality. This promise is also a promise of inclusion, that all people of all nations, races and social rank can be united as one universal family under a gracious, loving Father God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 Christ in us, the hope of glory!