If I was going to choose an image to illustrate today’s readings, I think it would be one of Jesus turning over the tables at the Temple, angrily denouncing the money changers for cheating those visitors who had scraped together their means to purchase a dove or animal for sacrifice.
It wasn’t one of the stories we heard read this morning. But riddled throughout our lessons today are tales of systems and viewpoints being flipped over as dramatically as those tables in the temple. In the first reading, the prophet Micah scoffs at the people trying to appease God with burnt offerings and the elaborate sacrificial rituals around which their religious practices had been grounded for centuries. God doesn’t require thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil, this reading tells us - God requires us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our Creator.
In the gospel reading, Jesus turns upside down entirely our understanding of how the world works. Say what, the meek shall inherit the earth? The hungry will be filled? That’s a far cry from what the people gathered around him knew of life.
And in Paul’s letter to the early church in Corinth, Paul acknowledges the seeming absurdity of this Christ, this Messiah who had confounded all expectations. This Messiah hadn’t gathered an army to free the Jews from Roman oppression; instead Jesus had led with love, rejected violence, met death with forgiveness, and opened the door to a new understanding of God that welcome people across religious and cultural boundaries. God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, says Paul, and has chosen what is weak to shame the strong.
In listening to those once-startling stories today, however, we have the benefit of thousands of years of hindsight, years in which the world has been shaped by the gospel messages to love neighbour and enemy alike, to protect the vulnerable, and to lead by serving others. However well we do or don’t live up to these Christian ideals, they no longer seem as counter-cultural as they did in their ancient context. Of course we should pray for our enemies. Of course we should recognize the dignity of every person and advocate for the impoverished. Of course our leaders should put the common good above self-aggrandizement and the hoarding of wealth. This all seems pretty obvious today. Surely God doesn’t have anything particularly shocking left to say to us now, do you think?
Hold that thought for a moment while I take you with me on a stroll I had when I was at Yellowpoint Lodge a couple of weekends ago. It was an unexpectedly sunny Saturday and I was standing on the porch of a tiny rustic beachfront cabin that was shuttered for the winter season.
As I stood looking out onto the seawater washing up to shore just a stone’s throw away, the sun caught upon a dewy, slightly ragged, cobweb that was tucked in the angle where beam met post, just above my head. The shining silver threads were like a beautiful lacework against the backdrop of trees and ocean, and I pulled out my phone to try to capture a photo.
In doing so, however, I shifted position a little and suddenly I no longer saw the silvery, sun-kissed threads against the dark green ocean. From this new angle, all that was visible to me were the dozens of tiny flies that had been trapped in the web, flecks of black against a lifeless grey sky. This sudden, startling change of perspective helped me think more about what surprises God might have in store for us; where God may be waiting to flip over our tables and turn our expectations upside down.
When we are surrounded by a life in which we experience beauty and comfort, it can be so hard to imagine it carries a dark side. If we have not had occasion to change our perspective, to see things from a different angle, it is easy to remain ignorant of the realities that underlie and support the life we are leading. It is much more pleasant to focus on the sunny web, spun with silver, than it is to imagine the winged creatures whose lives were taken to energize the weaver.
We may be (and I think we are!) good, kind people. We may put our faith into action in ways large and small. But perhaps, while we may have absorbed some of God’s lessons well, we resist new ones that might shock us.
When we are faced with a different tune for a familiar old hymn (don’t get me started on Love Divine, All Loves Excelling!), our first reaction can be one of high indignation. That’s not the right tune! I’ve never heard that before! How can I sing along to this one? I want the other one back! I confess that in these situations, I spend approximately zero time trying to listen for beauty in the new musical setting. I am too busy writing placards advocating for the return of the hymn tune I am used to.
So how much more difficult can it be to take the scriptural lessons of love and inclusiveness that we are used to, that we think we understand, and be challenged to apply them in new and radical ways? To confess, for example, that many of the lifestyle choices we make negatively affect the wellbeing of our neighbours across the globe, environmentally or economically. Or to acknowledge that the advantages that many of us have taken for granted are inherited by means of societies and institutions that feathered their own nests at the expense of others.
Take the Anglican church. The Church of England recently reported its finding that in the 18th century it invested the modern equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in the South Sea Trading Company, known to have transported tens of thousands of African people into a life of slavery. The financial benefits of those investments did not just disappear; they played some part in paving the way for the church of today.
Or take our North Shore history. There was a story in the North Shore News last year in which Guy Heywood - Heywood as in Heywood Park - thoughtfully discusses his discovery that in the late 1700s his great-uncles’ family owned at least two slaving ships that had transported untold thousands of slaves from West Africa. These Heywood brothers used their wealth to become established in the banking industry; generations later, business flourishing, the family were founding investors in the Moodyville sawmill down on the shores of Burrard Inlet and they soon turned their hand as well to developing what became known as North Vancouver.
Well, that suited families like mine - my father’s family was in the logging industry as well, and my dad’s wage from the BC Forest Service financed our house on what was a dirt road in Lynn Valley. Over the decades, that house ballooned in value about fifty fold. And that has given my family the stability and foundation to seek education, get a helping hand to reach the next rung, and - most importantly - to face the word with confidence because there’s a cushion if things go wrong. It goes without saying - but should be said - that the impact of European settlement on other families was not a happy one.
Now I don’t think God calls any of us to be paralyzed by guilt, whatever our circumstances. But I think God does call us to listen deeply to the stories of those people and cultures who paid, or are still paying, a price for our successes. I think we are called to recognize that a lack of opportunity and wealth creates a generational legacy as significant as inherited opportunity and wealth. And I think that by listening humbly to others and opening our hearts to their stories, we can indeed have our perspectives turned upside down, just like those people listening to Jesus’s sermon on the mount. Perhaps we can be on the alert for such opportunities as Canada enters Black History Month in a few days.
Whatever the topic may be, the desire to remain in blissful ignorance is an entirely human reaction. When we are eating our eggs in the morning, we don’t really want to think about the conditions of farm animals. When we find a cute sweater online at a great price, we close our eyes to the environmental costs of fast fashion. When we enjoy our homes, and our parks and our gardens, we don’t want to dwell on how the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people were displaced from their own homes and gathering places. It all just feels too much sometimes.
But here’s the thing. God is still here amongst us, just awaiting the chance to overturn any notions that are standing in the way of God’s kingdom. Jesus is still here, flipping over the tables in the inner temples where we store up our ego and pride.
It was only after the angle of sunlight changed that I was able to see both sides of that Yellowpoint cobweb and enlarge my perspective of what I was witnessing. I wonder if we might imagine Christ as that light, shining into our lives and helping us see that which we have not learned to look for, or that from which we have averted our gaze? When we next encounter a speaker, an article, a protest or a friend’s story that challenges our views on a situation, be it personal or societal, instead of being reflexively defensive or dismissive, might we use the light of Christ to search for truths that need to be heard? Experiences that need to be acknowledged? Wounds that need to be wept over?
Opening ourselves up this way is hard work. Acknowledging where we have individually or collectively fallen short always is. But rest assured, when we engage with this learning, we are not being called to cower in self-loathing; we are being called to rise in great love. God is with us, expecting us to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly - and God is cheering us on as we do so. May we leave our hearts wide open to God’s foolishness, the foolishness that uses the weakest amongst us to enlighten the strong. May God help us envision worlds never imagined, consider perspectives never before heard, and find beauty where we least expect it … maybe even in new hymn tunes!
*It is always heartening to find examples of past wrongs being recognized. Please click here if you would like to read about the Church of England’s new 100-million pound fund that will be used to support communities affected by historic slavery.