The Fires of Justice

Come Holy Spirit,  fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.

This is Pentecost Sunday 2020. While the Christian community remains living and active, deployed in the world to tend to those in need, Covid-19 forced us to live the entire Easter season in a liturgical lock-down, bereft of all the usual ways of gathering, praying and worshiping. That has been surreal and painful. For those who have had the courage to be open to newness and discovery, and who enjoy the privilege of online access, there have been gems of new ways to connect and pray across time and space. It will be a long time before we settle into a new normal, whatever that will be. And the Holy Spirit can and will guide us into a new and fresh witness in the world.

The traditional Pentecost prayer cited above leads me to reflect on the power of fire as God’s agent of communication and transformation.

There are at least two types of fire operating in the world. The one we implore today — kindle in us the fire of your love — is God’s own purifying and transforming fire of love and compassion, the fire of prophetic vision and zeal, the fire of justice and peace. And God knows how much we need this divine fire in the hearts of all people of good will.

But there’s another fire ablaze in the world today. I’m sure that fire has always burnt somewhere, but our modern media bring it into our living rooms at dazzling speed and upsets our little comfy worlds. This is the destructive fire of fury and outrage over the suffering of God’s people, the fire of oppression and violence, the fire of injustice and exploitation, and yes, the fire of racism and discrimination. This Pentecost weekend, these fires of outrage are ablaze in US cities all over the country, burst into flame by the police killing of yet another innocent, unarmed black man, a killing captured on camera in chilling detail.

The uprisings of black people against the structural injustice and racism has reached yet another tipping point. This is real fire, physical fire in setting ablaze police cruisers and buildings, physical/emotional fire in sobbing hearts filled with lifetimes of humiliation and oppression. This fire is a desperate attempt, a last resort, of needing to be heard. Our God of justice and love lives in the hearts of those who are disadvantaged and even killed for no reason. When their lives are crushed by power and white privilege, and their voices silenced, their spirits lower themselves into violence because there is no other way left to cry out for justice and peace. Not acceptable, but stop and think — it is understandable.

Just think of a time when you reached a boiling point of despair and frustration, a time when your heart was broken and weighed down with grief just too many times. At such times, what did you do? We either turn our anger and grief inward, destroying ourselves through depression, addiction or even suicide, or we turn it outward and lash out at others in destructive ways. Now multiply this by a entire people. Do you get it? The Holy Book tells us that God hears the cry of His people (Exodus 3:7) But do we?

When our economic and social structures fail to uphold and foster the divine image in people of colour, resorting to violence becomes the lowest expression of the need to have collective pain of racism and oppression heard and recognized. Back in 1953, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said the following: I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay to bring justice.

The fires of justice must burn in the hearts of all who implore the Holy Spirit today, or else we are not worth being called Christian. With the boldness of Peter on that first Pentecost Day, we are to preach God’s fire of justice with our lives — remember, only use words if you must. Do we recognize the white privilege we enjoy at the expense of sisters and brothers who will never know opportunity and ambition, peace and joy, simply because of the colour of their skin? Do we use the privilege we take for granted to debunk prejudice and racist comments in our neighbours and relatives, friends and co-workers? Begin to connect the dots: our own racist attitudes and treatment of people of colour give rise to the violence and uprising of hearts and lives that have been crushed for far too long. So stop the destructive fires of hatred and spite. In the US it’s black people who bear the burden of dehumanizing policies and structures. In our own great country of Canada it’s primarily, but not exclusively, our Indigenous peoples who bear these burdens. Think about that, and repent. That’s what Peter preached on that fiery Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples — repent (Acts 2:36–41).

This pandemic is bad for way too many people, no doubt. But we are also recognizing that the pandemic brings some key lessons which could guide us into a better future if we choose to heed them. One which we hear a lot is that we are all in this together, and that everything is connected. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make this truth crystal clear once again, because it has always been thus even if we ignore it. We are all in the same global health storm, but we are each in different boats struggling with the tidal waves of change. But the fear and heartache, uncertainty and grief of this season are evident in each one’s precarious existence. It is said that Covid-19, while spread across the globe by those who can afford to cross international borders, has made no distinctions, leveling the playing field between rich and poor, white and black, young and old. Yet those who were already suffering from poverty and racism, structural oppression and displacement, have been given a double blow of fear and despair, pain and loss.

If we take seriously that we are truly in this together as one human family, then what one of us suffer, we all suffer: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:26-27)

While hunkering safely in our homes, we might be truly inconvenienced by the current restrictions in our freedom of movement. While still connected online, we might truly suffer from the lock-down, the isolation and the social deprivation. But if we are part of the privileged few, we know that our current restrictions will end, that we will manage to pick up and create a new normal. Even in this global health crisis, we can hope and we can plan, we can keep loving and creating. This is not a luxury the majority of the world population will be able to access. And as long as we keep supporting economic systems that favour the few at the expense of the many, destructive fires of rage and frustration will continue to erupt, obstructing God’s Holy Spirit to bring the fire of divine transformation and wholeness to all creation.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us, no set ablaze in us the hot transforming fire of your love. Let us sing with heartfelt conviction the very words Mary sang while pregnant with our Lord, exclaiming in prophetic wonder what the coming of Jesus, the child in her womb, would mean for the world:

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
These are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forbears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Song based on Luke 1:46-58 (Magnificat) by Rory Cooney

God’s Rescue Mission

Magnanimity – what does this word mean? Noble, generous, great-heartedness, benevolence, extravagant kindness. These words came to mind when pondering today’s Scriptures from Genesis (45:1-11) and Luke (6:27-31). All I really need to say is that Joseph’s attitude, words and actions towards his brothers express vividly what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. What is that connection between Joseph’s actions and Jesus’ words? In order to see and appreciate that connection, let’s recall Joseph’s story, the context in which the encounter we hear about today takes place.

Avarice and greed, jealously and sibling rivalry, sex and politics, and ample conspiracy in the royal palace – all these juicy ingredients make up the story of Joseph and his brothers. By the time the story gets to chapter 45, Joseph has become the virtual ruler of Egypt. He has survived the murderous plot of his brothers to sell him as a slave when he was younger. He came to the attention of Pharaoh and was brought into the royal palace. He wins Pharaoh’s favour and rises in the ranks, again causing jealousy and scorn. Joseph resisted seduction by the wife of a powerful Egyptian, and is now in control of the country’s storehouses of supplies. And famine has hit hard, both in Egypt and in Palestine. In an ironic twist, Joseph’s brothers now stand before him begging for food for their families, begging for their lives. The brothers have no idea that it is Joseph, the brother whom they sold into slavery, that now holds their lives in the balance. Moreover, Joseph has caught them accused of theft. Given the brutal betrayal Joseph suffered at the hands of his brothers, he has every right to take revenge now.

But what does Joseph do? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Joseph lived these words long before Jesus spoke them.

It was as difficult for the ancient people as for us to believe that God is at work in the dark and destructive moments of our existence. Too often it seems nigh impossible to taste grace and redemption in the dark. Then it’s only a small step to conclude that God is never present in human suffering and loss. And let’s be honest: what Jesus proposes might sound lovely, but deep down we “know” that it’s so darn naive and impossible. Even many committed Christians quietly think that notions such as turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, resist retaliation and revenge, are completely unrealistic in our violent world, dangerous even. The violent often crush those who do not retaliate. And yet, meeting violence with violence increases violence.

But then there’s Joseph. Before anything else, Joseph exemplifies
what it means to be God’s servant. In this moment of reckoning with his brothers, when their destiny is in Joseph’s hands – literally – Joseph stands as a powerful witness to what God’s grace can do in our lives. If we are left wondering what it means to follow Jesus’ upside-down commands to love our enemy, to forgive our persecutor, to give without recompense, to refrain from judging, look at, and listen to, Joseph. Realize what he’s been through, and really feel what is happening in this dramatic scene

How easy it is to regard Jesus’ words as impossible burdens or as pie-in-the-sky utopias rather than as our most powerful ally in the war of all wars: the war on the need for war and revenge. We might be less dismissive of Jesus’ commands if we realize that our survival as a people has not been due to our capacity to win wars, or crush our enemies. Rather, the survival of the human species is directly connected to our capacity to forgive, to show mercy and so to begin anew.

In the nineteenth century Abraham Lincoln reunited North and South “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” He opted for weapons of warmth and generosity over those of repression and vengeance.  In the 1960’s Martin Luther King, Jr. marched facing jeering and taunting, fire hoses and police dogs. He responded to threats of death and destruction with threats of peace and justice for all. In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison for condemning Apartheid. To the surprise of many he called not for revenge, but for forgiveness and reconciliation. Many felt betrayed that he turned away from righteous anger, yet the world took note of such a powerful heart and mind.

This spring it will be 25 years since the Rwandan genocide. Approximately one million people were slaughtered over the course of 100 days for simply being Tutsi. The killers were not some outside group, but rather classmates, co-workers, friends, next door neighbours. In a country as community-based as Rwanda, this is highly significant. Forgiveness becomes way more difficult when you keep encountering the killers regularly at the market, at church, at school, on the street.

Much like Joseph forgiving his brothers, Rwandans were not just forgiving a stranger, but a neighbour, a friend, who had harmed them irreparably. Over the years since that awful tragedy, the people of Rwanda are rising again. Many of the victims acknowledged that the process took time, and it was not easy, but eventually they learned how to resist hatred, revenge and resentment, and instead developed the capacity for mercy. Many perpetrators were moved to regret their heinous crimes and found the courage to ask forgiveness. One Rwandan woman used the compensation money she received for her husband’s death to help feed and support the man who killed him. Another man was shocked when released from prison after 10 years to find his wife living with the widow next door, whose husband he had murdered. The two women had been supporting each other during his time in jail. Thanks to such heroic acts of mercy, Rwanda is rebounding and building a new future of hope for its children’s children.

Only a few weeks ago, here in our own province, we were privy to the heart-breaking victim impact statements of the Broncos families who lost their young loved ones or had their sons’ lives forever scarred by enduring injuries from that terrible crash nearly one year ago. We heard words of forgiveness from many a parent, words laced with unspeakable grief and pain. And yet, these parents are choosing forgiveness as the only road to healing, liberation and restoration for both the countless victims, their loved ones and for the bus driver, a young man who will now live the rest of his life with the death and injury of so many on his conscience.
To err is human, to forgive is divine.” “Do onto others as you would want them to do to you.” These are not empty slogans. They are the most profound statements of how God’s life reaches into our lives, and makes us his own. The greatest measure of any civilization still boils down to the same thing. The same thing in Joseph’s time, the same thing in Jesus’ time: how well we give, how well we forgive and how we lift up the lowly.

Magnanimity – extravagant generosity, big-heartedness in the face of adversity, evil, sin, and violence … Very soon we will be entering the Lenten season. Every year Lent calls us to reflect, to repent, and to forgive. Every act of repentance and mercy towards one another is spiritual money in God’s bank of redemption and grace.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,
will be put into your lap; for the measure you give
will be the measure you get back.
Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.

Joseph and countless others right up to this day show us in word and deed that this command of our Lord truly does lead to life in abundance and into the freedom of God’s Spirit. AMEN

Homily preached on Sunday February 24, 2019
Genesis 45:1-11, 15, Luke 6:27-38
The RC Lectionary had 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-25 instead of Genesis 45:1-11, 15 as the first reading. However, the theme and message are identical, and match those of the Gospel, which was the same.