Monday, December 8, 2014

From Hanukkah to Ferguson

            (I rarely--perhaps never--post sermons on my blog, but here I make an exception. This week's sermon began as an explanation of Hanukkah, but in light of the killings of innocent black men and boys this past week, it also turned out to be a sermon about racism. It's also an example, I suppose, of how preaching in a Liberal church, during Advent even, isn't necessarily Christocentric--and for a topic such as this one, that seems fine to me. Several people asked me to post it, so here it is.)

            Once upon a time, in the fourth century BC, a dashing young Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, conquered most of the known world. Alexander also brought Greek culture—Aristotle, Sophocles, and even the Olympics—to the rest of the world, too. And mostly, people ate it up.

            In Israel, it was much the same. Many people of rank and learning, particularly in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, fell in love with everything Greek. Theatres and gyms were built. Athletes, as was the practice of that day, competed in the nude—a shocking change from traditional Judaism.

            It seems that disagreements between old-style religious Jews and the new Hellenizers eventually led to civil strife—violence—within Jerusalem. One of the Emperor Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, subsequently went to Jerusalem to restore order. While there, he sacked the temple and slaughtered thousands of Jews—apparently under the mistaken notion that the Jews were trying to throw him out rather than just fighting amongst themselves. Never mind, he went on to sacrifice pigs on the temple alter, and built another alter to the Greek God Zeus nearby. And finally, in a break with the generally tolerant attitude to other religions the Greeks had, Antiochus banned Judaism throughout his territory as a radical, violent, and intolerant religion.

            King Antiochus also sent emissaries to the conservative country towns surrounding Jerusalem, also directing them to sacrifice unclean pigs. It was in one such village, Modi'in, that the local priest, Matthias, was so offended by this sacrilegious act that he killed the emissary. Then, fleeing to the hills with his five sons, Mattathias and his sons began a guerrilla war against the Greek King Antiochus. To make a very long story short, they eventually took back Jerusalem in the year 165 B.C. And, as recorded in 1 Maccabees 4, once there, they cleaned out and rededicated the temple.

            Hanukkah is the eight-day celebration of the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem to true Jewish worship. The most important part of this celebration, at least in the memory of the Jews, was the relighting of the golden lampstand. Although it is not recorded in our scripture reading, the story goes that when the golden lampstand—actually an oil lamp—was relit, there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. However, miraculously, that single day’s worth of oil lasted eight days—the exact amount of time it took to consecrate a new supply of oil. Thus the Menorah, which is lit to commemorate Hanukkah and recall the lighting of the golden candlestick, has room for eight candles, one for each day of the miracle. The ninth candle is set apart from the eight, to light the others and serve as light before the others are lit.

            So what does it mean? Well, while the candles hark back to the golden candlestick of the temple—the larger meaning Hanukkah celebrates is the survival, against all odds, of the Jewish people, religion, and culture. A well-known Hanukkah Prayer goes like this:

What is the miracle of Hanukkah?
Against all odds, we are here.
Against all common sense,
we have lit these candles.
We see these flames before us now,
a miracle.
We stand in community here,
a miracle.
We see these flames
leaping through space and time,
joining us to history, to our people.

            Against all odds, say the Jews, we are here. And it is a miracle, given 2500 years of pogroms and deportations, forced conversions and finally, the holocaust. In light of this horrific history, and especially the holocaust, the Jews say, “Never again.” And we agree. “Never again!”

            If we have the courage to do so, however, perhaps we should dig a bit deeper into this Jewish story of survival. You see, that survival was actually in spite of the best efforts of generations of our ancestors—that is, at least those of us who have European ancestors. From the crusades to the invention of concentration camps, from massive witch-hunts to multiple genocides, from the bombing of innocent civilians during WWII to the holocaust, our tribe, our culture, our kings and princes have been deeply implicated in generations of racism and xenophobia not only against Jews but many other peoples besides.

            Do we really mean it, when we say, “never again!” Would you be willing to put a price on “never again?”

            This has been a very difficult week for those of us who want to be believe in a “never, never again-land.” Racism is alive and well in America, for example. Whatever you may think about the particulars of the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, everyone agrees that rage boiled over in those streets because what happened to Brown wasn’t unique—it is the daily grind for all Black citizens of that town, and many others in America. The subsequent deaths of Eric Garner of “I can’t breathe” fame in New York City, and Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix—both unarmed—have only served to heighten our concern about ongoing racism. And don’t forget Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot for playing with a toy gun in a park, and Amadou Diallo, shot 49 times by police when they mistook a wallet in his pocket for a gun, and Trayvon Martin, shot by a vigilante while walking home through a mostly-white neighbourhood from a store. The list could go on to include hundreds more names.

            I actually believe that things are somewhat better in Canada. We are trying to build a fairer, safer society here than south of the border. But we also have to. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Half of the people who live here were born in another country—many of them from places like India, Pakistan, Jamaica, and The Philippines. Perhaps 40% of us Torontonians have rainbow-hued skin. We pride ourselves on multiculturalism and open mindedness.

            But even in Toronto you are four times more likely to be stopped by police—carded—if you are black or brown than you are if you are white. Twenty-five percent of Canada’s federal prisoners are aboriginals, while they are only 4% of our population. Blacks make up 2.5 percent of Canada’s population, and make up nearly 10% of our prison population. Forty percent of Canada’s prisoners are not Caucasian. The RCMP noted a few weeks ago that there are 1,200 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women since 1980. Google “racism in Canada,” and you will get millions of hits telling stories of Blacks or Aboriginals being racially profiled, shadowed in stores by security personal, getting pulled over all out of proportion to their numbers on highways, receiving harsher discipline in school than their white fellow students, and so on. All black parents have to train their kids on how to interact with police, because it is dangerous out there for black kids. And even if we don’t always like to be reminded of it, Canada is famous around the world for the ugly water quality, lack of housing, subpar schools, poverty, and violence of its Aboriginal communities. “Never again?”

            I wonder, where is the rage? Where is the sense of injustice? Where is this church at?

            Getting back to the Hanukkah story, there are, of course, ironies. The Maccabean Jews who defeated Antiochus, who are celebrated at Hanukkah, were definitely not in favour of religious tolerance. And in the present, as much as we support the right of Israel to live in a safe and secure homeland, we are all deeply disturbed by the treatment Palestinians receive, whether within Israel or outside the walls of the stolen West bank settlements, or in that nation-sized, blockaded refugee camp otherwise known as Gaza.

            The truth is, xenophobia—the hatred of others who are different—is not just a Western problem. The Turks committed genocide against the Albanians, the Serbs against the Croats, The Hutus against the Tutsis, the English and Dutch against multiple African tribes, the Japanese against the Chinese, and so on, all within the past 125 years. All humans have a deeply evolved, genetically ingrained “fight or flight,” response when it comes to members of other tribes. And even when flight is our choice, it’s usually because someone has taken the fight to us.

            But being human also means being “Homo Sapiens,” which mean “wise.” We must transcend our brutal past and choose something better. Securing a future for my mixed race grandchildren, or Canada’s First Nations, or your Jamaican and Filipino neighbours depends on our overcoming mindless passions and rationally—as well as justly—choosing “never again.” Being human in a global village, being at peace and prosperous in Canada, has a future only if we are willing to pay, sacrifice, and struggle to make it so. Breaking with thousands of years of racist and xenophobic tradition will be costly.

            But here in this church, this morning, there are people who can make it so—or, at least, who can help push the envelope in the right direction. Among those here for church this morning are those who run companies, invest large amounts of money, work in government, vote, know your parliamentary representatives, sit on boards with other powerful people, and have the ear of the elite in your fields. Your influence, your insight, your willingness to take risks for the greater good—that’s a big part of what it is going to take to make this country a “never again,” land; a place where racism has been beaten down and peace—religious and ethnic peace at home—has been given a chance.

            Because in the end, we don’t so much want to sing about the miracle of how our people, or our tribe survived.  We want to sing about the miracle of how all the nations of the world found, in Canada, a land flowing with the milk of human kindness the honey of justice for all, regardless of religion or skin colour.

            At least, this Hanukkah and this Advent, I’d really like to light a candle to that.


  1. Wow!! It's a bit of a stretch to call this a sermon. As to "The Agony of the CRC"- a blog of a week or two ago- it seems to me that the United Church has its own "agonies".

    1. If a sect defines "sermon" in a way that honours only its own sense of truth, then members of that sect will certainly have a very difficult time accepting that anything said from any other pulpit or dais other than its own is truly a sermon. And yes, the United Church certainly has its own agonies, too! I've written about them several times.

  2. Your definition of a sermon puts us in a strait jacket and thus stifles debate.Is there not a universally accepted definition and would it not include that a sermon is an exhortation based on a biblical text? If not sermons would be nothing more than opinion pieces, editorials

    1. No--that is a common Evangelical definition, but not necessarily widely shared beyond evangelicalism. I'd say a sermon is an exhortation or exploration of a text--Biblical or not--that touches on the great themes of life and death and meaning. In my experience, most Evangelical sermons are opinion pieces that most other evangelicals would take issue with. That is, there are so many disagreements among Evangelicals about baptism, the order of the decrees of election, the meaning of Revelation, the nature of Jesus' presence at the Lord's Supper, what our only comfort in life and death is, what the role of women is, whether or not birth control is okay, what the most important part of gratitude (the list is endless)--there are so many disagreements about the proper interpretation of the bible that the only explanation possible is that most Evangelical preachers are going with their own personal opinion (or that of some seventeenth century forebear). The thing is, Evangelicals rarely own up to this, most insisting that they are right and Biblical and a pox on everyone else's house. I'd say that opinions are not so bad and you should expect to find them in preaching (human experience teaches us that they are there, after all). But these opinions do need to be weighed, tested, and discussed in community and with a seriousness of purpose. Humans are fallible when they do so (or when they share opinions about what the Bible might mean in this passage or that). That's not so bad. We keep striving to become wiser, kinder, more loving. If sermons encourage that, even if they are "only" opinion pieces, they can't be far off of the mark.


What do you think?