Joshua Paetkau

Go Nowhere among the Gentiles:

Confronting the Spiritual Evil of Racism in our own Communities.

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Trinity.

Parishes of New Carlisle and Chaleur Bay

June 14, 2020

the Rev. Joshua Paetkau

 

Our Gospel this week follows the ministry of Jesus as he teaches in the synagogue, preaches the good news of the kingdom, and cures disease and sickness. Seeing the great masses, harassed and helpless, as a sheep without a shepherd, he commissions his disciples to help with the work and sends them out to cast out unclean spirits and cure sicknesses. They become apostles, beginning the work that they will undertake in a more full way upon receiving the Holy Spirit of God’s redeeming love in their lives. Jesus sends these disciples, at this point, not to the whole world, but to the lost sheep of Israel. This indicates, I believe a recognition of the disciples human limitations, a recognition of the importance of the spiritual and moral tradition of the people of Israel, and it lays a stress upon strengthening the spiritual fibre of one’s own community before embarking on a journey beyond that.

 

The ministry of Jesus’ disciples will eventually reach the Gentiles, but, as a Gentile reader I have to accept that I am not the first to receive this message. Jesus says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles,” and this tells us that the restoration of the lost sheep of Israel is important to him. These specific lives, the lives of his people, matter to him. Read together with the passage from Genesis, we can also see that Jesus is working to restore a logic or law of hospitality which is foundational to the identity of the assembly of Israel. He sends his disciples to be guests in the homes of the lost sheep of Israel. They need to be good guests, that they may restore the Abrahamic traditions of hospitality among the people. Abraham, in his own time, had been a faithful practitioner of hospitality, even when the cities around were becoming inhospitable and cruel. We know, from the story of Jesus’ own birth, that hospitality was already becoming institutionalized, and those institutions did not serve everybody. There was no room for three strangers in Bethlehem, but a feast was prepared for three strangers under the Oak of Mamre.

 

The reasons for the disintegration of hospitality are complex, but they can be boiled down into a single word; imperialism. First Egyptian imperialism, then Assyrian imperialism, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and finally Roman. Too many dangerous strangers makes all strangers seem dangerous, because the fabric of trust and the capacity to be a gracious host is eroded with each negative interaction. Jesus,as a travelling teacher, preacher, and healer exercises a ministry of presence which is, in itself, a work of teaching, proclamation, and healing. Perhaps those with whom he stays, as a guest, will learn how to laugh again – as Sara did – or at least that their tongues will be loosened to speak truthfully about themselves and their communities.

 

In my sermon last week, I shared a quote from Truman Nelson’s 1964 book The Torture of Mothers: The Case of the Harlem Six. The book tells the story of six young Black American men wrongfully accused of murder in the mid-1960s, and of their mothers who banded together to fight for justice and to tell the stories of their sons. These mothers became witnesses, not only of their sons’ suffering, but witnesses to the authentic rule of law and justice, much as the Jewish mother of seven sons in 2 Maccabees chapter 7 is a witness to God’s law even when it contradicts the orders of the king. Her youngest son defies the king’s authority, on pain of death, saying, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses.” (2 Maccabees 7.30b)

 

Truman Nelson, in the opening of that book, confesses that he doesn’t think he will be believed, and that what he has witnessed has rendered him physically almost unable to speak. He knows that silence is impossible, and yet the sense of anger, rage, guilt, and hopelessness has caused his voice to catch in his throat. Palpable evil had rendered him mute.

 

Our gospel for this evening begins with the little word then. “Then,” is one of those words that causes you to read a little further back in the passage, to see what came before. “Then Jesus went out among all the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness.” We see, here, that Jesus exercised his ministry in four distinctive ways. 1) He went about to the cities and villages, that is, he exercised a ministry of presence. 2) He taught, this is a ministry of education of training people, 3) he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom – this is the ministry of preaching, and it conveys a dimension of social and political awareness – Jesus is teaching people and preparing them to be part of the society of God, the kingdom of Heaven, the commonwealth of Israel. Finally, he cures every disease and every sickness – this is a ministry of healing, and it is related to the health and wellbeing not merely of isolated individuals but of the whole people.

 

The gospel tells us that “Then Jesus...” did these things, which means that before that he did something else. If we read back, in Matthew 9.32-34 we find out that what Jesus did was, he healed a demoniac who was mute. Now, we are not, in our time, very accustomed to talking about demons and demon possession, but basically what is meant by the demonic is spiritual evil. So, the man is rendered mute by the experience of spiritual evil in his community and his society, and his silence is part of that broken spiritual condition. He is unable to speak, because of spiritual harm. When that spiritual harm is recognized, when Jesus casts out the demon and the man is allowed to speak for himself, to narrate his own experience, this provokes very different responses within the society. Some people say, ‘we’ve never seen anything like this in all Israel, and to other’s – particularly those who are more privileged members of the community, this is terrifying. “The Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (Matt. 9.34)

 

Over the past few weeks, in response to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, there have been a number of lawmakers, politicians, and health officials who have declared racism a public health crisis. This has happened, not only in the United States, but here in Canada as well. The Toronto Board of Health has declared anti-Black racism a public health crisis. A retired United Methodist pastor – Bill Wylie-Kellerman has decried racism and white supremacy as demonic. Once this is pointed out, it seems quite obvious – racism is a gross distortion of human relationships. It involves a history in which people have been physically, morally, and spiritually harmed by other people, by institutions, and by unjust laws.

 

Now, this scourge of racism and violence is not limited to the United States. This past week we’ve seen irrefutable evidence of police brutality against indigenous people in Canada. It may be uncomfortable to talk about, but this is not a matter about which we can be silent. The spirit of muteness has been cast out, and the time has come to speak openly and frankly about the evil that is upon us. On June 8, the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a statement which begins this way:

 

The Anglican Church of Canada has committed itself to confronting racism in its own life and to acknowledging the place of racism and colonialism in our own nation. That commitment needs to be renewed daily.” Racism the statement continues, is a sin which contravenes our baptismal vow “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

 

So, how do we renew this commitment, in our own lives, every day? How do we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? How do we cast out the demons of dumbness, of helpless inarticulation that bind us to cycles of violence?

 

Well, first of all – we turn to Jesus. I do not have the strength to confront this evil. I do not have the strength to listen and to see, or the knowledge to know what to do. But I know that my Lord took time to visit an old man and an old woman under an oak tree in the Middle East, I know that my God cared about a stuttering shepherd and fugitive named Moses and used him to teach a nation of enslaved people how to be free, I know that my Lord saw a man rendered mute by the palpable evil of this world and gave him a voice to speak. Jesus saw the crowds and was moved with compassion.

 

Compassion, is a Latin word. It means, to suffer with. Jesus went to the places where the people where. He went into the synagogues, which taught not just religion but law. The halls of justice. He proclaimed the kingdom, not imposing it from outside, but proclaiming it from within, rooting that proclamation in a logic of hospitality which gave, but also received. The kingdom of God is a gift. You don’t earn it, but you can receive it with the grace that God has given you. Jesus went to the places where the people were sick – in body, in spirit, in mind, and in soul.

 

And he entrusted the continuation of that ministry to us – to all the baptized. We cannot go everywhere, but each of us can go somewhere. We cannot do everything, but each of us can do something according to the gifts that God has given us. We can learn to listen, and to become more aware of the people in our community, our province, our nation, and our world. We can practice attentiveness, following the leading of God’s Spirit of love that has been poured out in our hearts.

 

And we can stand tall, because we stand in the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.