Second Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 17 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

I had thoughts about what I was going to say in my homily today. And then a terrorist in New Zealand brutally murdered at least 49 Muslims at prayer on Friday morning. One of the people he named as his “inspiration” was the terrorist who murdered six Muslims at prayer in Québec in 2017. This is here, this is now, this is the world in which we are living. Hate crimes are spiralling everywhere, and the vast majority of them are carried out—let’s speak clearly—by white men, most of them targetting Muslims, Jews, and Black people, or occasionally women as a group. Some of them, like this, are attacks specifically on people gathered in worship. White supremacist groups gather on our streets, and flood social media with their lies. There are people in public office, and others seeking public office, in major political parties, who have associated openly with white supremacists. Hold it in your mind, that the man came to the door of the mosque, and was greeted, with courtesy and welcome, as we would greet a stranger here. And he took out a gun and shot the greeter dead. And then shot at least 48 other people, including children as young as three years old, at that mosque and one other, and livestreamed the murders on Facebook, where many people reacted with approval. Imagine that going peacefully to your place of worship could cost you your life. And I will say, because again it needs to be said clearly, that Black Christians have known, and still can know, this fear, like Muslims, like Jews. The terrorist in New Zealand named, among his inspirations, not only the Québec mosque killer, and the killer at the Tree of Life Synagogue, but also the man who killed the members of a prayer group gathered at a Black church in North Carolina. Only some of us, like myself, are protected, made safer by our whiteness, the privilege it provides us. The killer, apparently, stated that he was trying to protect “white identity.” We need to face all of this.

Hear us, oh Lord, have mercy upon us. For we have sinned against thee. I tell you now with tears, as Paul says—it is not the good kind people of other faiths, but these violent men, some of whom call themselves Christians, who are the worst and most real enemies of the cross of Christ.

Our first reading today is a fragment of the story of Abraham. It is more than important—it is urgent—for us to remember that Abraham is the figure said to be the father of all Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We are family. Those people who died in New Zealand are members of our family. And if we do not stand up for our family, at this time and in this place, God is going to have to raise up from the stones some other and more loyal children for Abraham.

I am glad that this parish has begun to build a relationship with Masjid Toronto, that the imam invited me to attend prayers with them the morning after the news broke, and that yesterday, in the face of all this, their volunteers came to this church and cooked and served a lunch for about 75 hungry people. One thing I’d encourage everyone here to do is to try to extend that relationship; drop by on the third Saturday of each month if you can, meet our siblings from the Masjid, eat with them, get to know them better, as some of you have already done. Visit one of the two Masjid locations downtown, either to join for prayers or to talk to the hospitality volunteers between prayer times. It is a kind and generous community, and the better we know them, the better we can all help each other.

Other things we can—we must—do: shut down hate speech, prejudice, and racism. Do not let anti-Muslim language go unchallenged in conversation. Report hate speech on social media or in the regular media, report it over and over. Do not ever let it be an acceptable thing. Be active in creating counter-messages. Attend the solidarity vigils, attend the protests against racism and Islamophobia. On Ash Wednesday, just eleven days ago, torn pages from the Koran were found scattered at the University of Toronto. One member of our congregation, to whom I’m deeply grateful, attended an event quickly organized by the Muslim Students’ Association while I was leading the Ash Wednesday service; she told me that she was one of only two non-Muslims present, and that, even worse, the Muslim students were not surprised; they didn’t expect anyone to step up for them.

Also: write to your elected representatives and tell them that Islamophobia is unacceptable any time and anywhere, and that we expect them to say so. And think hard about who you vote for, when elections come around. Do the research. As I said, there are politicians out there, treated seriously, who have terrifying associations, and may try to hide them. Talk about this with other people, too, as elections approach.

We need, too, to look at our selves, our own theology, how ways of thinking which seem unremarkable have been a part of what can come to feed hatred. There is a problem in the story of Abraham, which crops up in this reading. When God promises, as God repeatedly does, that Abraham will be given “the land”, the implication—and certainly the reading which has always dominated—is that this means that the land will taken away from others for Abraham’s exclusive possession. A good part of scripture is a narrative of invasion and settlement, of seizing land from indigenous inhabitants, and then defending it violently against all others. It must be said that all of the Abrahamic religions have sometimes gone down this harmful road, but it must also be said that Christians have been really stunningly the most successful, so much so that we have been able to live unconscious of it for a long time. For generations, we just had most of the territory of the world, one way or another, at the cost of the lives of many who had lived there before, and we are still, in various forms, fighting to hold that territory, whether the territory is now literal or metaphorical. Anglicans have tended, on the whole, to be “nice” about this, to hold onto our unjustly-acquired privileges and possessions, to defend against the perceived encroaching “other”, in polite ways. That doesn’t make it any less real, and the politeness is a thin veneer. It is entirely likely that the so far unidentified white man who physically attacked my friend, the Indigenous activist Vanessa Gray, last week, because she was speaking out for her people at a Trudeau rally, identifies as a Christian, possibly even as an Anglican.

Anger, defensiveness, perception of threat, persistent hatred of the “other”, the felt need to fight for our “territory”, these things are deep in human nature and deep in our religious tradition. But they do not belong there, and we must undo them.

There is a single great confession, which is shared, in different words, by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and I found myself deeply moved when it was spoken, in Arabic, so close the the Aramaic of Jesus, in the Masjid on Friday. There is no God but God. That is our shared bedrock, our core. And that means that nothing else is God. No church, no state, no nation, no belief, no economy, no earthly thing. Nothing can hold our loyalty. Nothing else deserves our worship. There is no God but God.

And in today’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth—who is, of course, also held in high esteem by Muslims, though we understand his significance in different ways—gives us an extraordinary simile, a simile adapted from the Hebrew scriptures. Against Herod the fox, he sets the mother hen. A small, weak, vulnerable, foolish creature, surrounding and protecting the chicks, even at the cost of her own life. And Jesus tells the Pharisees that he will go into the heart of power and empire without defence, because that is how we may see the nature of God. That God, the one God, will embrace and surround us, hold us under God’s wings and against God’s heart, but not in combat or competition, not fox against fox, but only in love. If we can believe in this God, we need never try to defend an imagined territory which we never owned against any others, or protect some kind of “white identity” or any other distorted ideology, but reach out to others as siblings, as beloved. We need to hold this God more and more in our being. This will not necessarily defend us against death; foxes kill hens, Herod killed Jesus. But it will let us act bravely and without hatred in the face of evil. For there is no God but God, and nothing but the work of God’s love must ever claim us.