As you know, the past few weeks, I’ve been using sermons from other United Church ministers in order to free up some time for Interim Ministry tasks that were taking priority. I have to say that it felt a bit weird to be preaching other people’s words. And while I had planned to do that again this week, with the ongoing situation in Ottawa, I felt compelled to write something. To wrestle with it through the lens of faith.
I’m not sure who said preaching was holding the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. These days, both of those may be electronic and we have many more sources for information than the newspaper. And sometimes, perhaps even often, we wonder who or what to trust. Media, video, print, all kinds, can so easily be manipulated.
First of all, I want to be clear, I support peaceful protests. I support the right of citizens of any country to assemble and gather and challenge their governments to act better. That being said, I do not support what I’m seeing and hearing about the Freedom Convoy. I may understand their frustration, but I do not support their actions. However, I also don’t support Nova Scotia’s latest directive under the Emergency Management Act issued on Feb. 4, prohibiting protesters from blockading or disrupting traffic on any road, street or highway in Nova Scotia. That seems like an overreach of provincial powers.
Friday night my husband and I watched a documentary on the Holocaust told by five survivors from Hungary. They spoke of the increasing restrictions and how they thought, “Oh well, just one more thing.” The Hungarian Jews thought of themselves as Hungarians first, Jews second. And so, when I see Nazi and Confederate flags amidst the people in the convoy, I think we have to take the danger seriously.
In some respects, I feel for any group of people who feel disenfranchised. Who feel as if they are left out of decision making power, and how bonding over a shared so called ‘enemy’ can be a powerful experience. I share the frustration of two long years of Covid that the organizers of whatever you want to call this, Freedom Convoy, a protest, an occupation, in Ottawa and those that support them are feeling.
But I think we need to ask the question, do these people represent the 85% of truckers who are vaccinated and continue on the job, making sure food and other goods are delivered? I think we also have to question the kind of political ties the leaders of the so-called Freedom Convoy have. Are they political parties that reflect the kind of Canada we want to build up?
And last, but not least, I think we need to dispel the notion that Canadians don’t act in irrational and appalling ways at times. We have a particularly violent history with First Nations people that is not the focus of today, although I do wonder what the police, political leaders, and people of Ottawa’s response would be if a convoy of Indigenous or Black people occupied the centre of our capital city. Would the response be so hands off? However, as I said, that’s not the focus of today’s sermon.
Last week, a New Brunswick paper reported finding a piece of newsprint in a wall in a church was being demolished. What caught the eye was the headline: Vaccination for Children. The person who discovered it brought it to the project manager Dave Essensa, who did some digging. The publication date wasn’t attached, however, by drawing on a few key details, Essensa said he determined the story must have been about the push to vaccinate school children against smallpox during Montreal’s devastating outbreak in 1885.
“The article speaks of a doctor [Louis] Laberge as being the chief medical health officer for the City of Montreal,” said Essensa. “A bit of internet searching and referencing some articles … that spoke to a smallpox epidemic in the province of Quebec in 1885.” The smallpox outbreak of 1885 killed 3,259 people in Montreal alone and 5,964 across Quebec. During the outbreak, violent riots broke out in the streets of Montreal by groups opposed to the city’s vaccination campaign, according to Jonathan M. Berman’s When antivaccine sentiment turned violent: the Montréal Vaccine Riot of 1885, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “On Sept. 28, the Board of Health announced that vaccination was to be made compulsory,” writes Berman. “In response, a ‘howling mob’ surrounded the East End Branch Health Office that evening and ‘wrecked’ the building.”
Not condoning this at all! But a reminder that it is part of our history and that Canadians, much as we like to think of ourselves as peaceful and law abiding, also have this other side. So, what does this have to do with church or faith or Jesus or anything right? Can’t we just stay here in our Nova Scotia bubble where there are pockets of this kind of thinking, but as far as I know, nothing major. Although I read this morning that there is a ‘Freedom Convoy planned for today. We could bury our heads in the sand and believe me there are times when I want to! We could think, I’m too old, too young, too busy, too anything, you insert the adjective. 😉
Let’s listen to God’s words to Jeremiah, a young prophet, who said some of those things to God, it’s in the first chapter:
1:4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 1:6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 1:7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 1:8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
1:9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 1:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
We live in the world and how we understand our faith has an impact on how we live our life. Those last words of Jeremiah 1:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” How do we know which one to do? To pluck up and to pull down? Build and plant? They are both there?
There is a time to tear down systems of oppression and a time to plant gardens of justice! So how do we know? When I am confused about which side I should be on, I don’t ask What Would Jesus Do? I have started to ask, “Where Would Jesus Be?” In almost all the stories about Jesus, he stands on the side of those who are marginalized. And has harsh words for those who would oppress and harass them.
He heals the bent-over woman and restores her to wholeness and community. He healed the woman who had been menstruating for 12 years and called her a daughter of Abraham. That had community significance. He said, Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). He touched lepers in a time when they were considered unclean. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan, when the Samaritans were hated and feared. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. All these people were on the margins of society, they had no power.
So, I ask you, where you think Jesus is in the midst of what’s going on in Ottawa? I think he is with the Canadian of Indian descent who is afraid to go out because of the sense of danger to those who are not white. I think he is in the workers in all kinds of sectors who are being harassed for both wearing masks and trying to enforce masking. I think he is in the homeless shelters in the downtown core while horns blare constantly, traumatizing already fragile people.
At the same time, we need to learn to talk with one another across great divides. Not yell, not simply wait for our turn to talk, not make demands. But listen. And be willing to hear.
Have you ever noticed that in a time of crises, like a hurricane or a snow storm, people rally together, they shovel each other out, they share food, electricity, coffee, whatever they have. But this past two years has been a crisis of a different sort. It’s been a crisis that has forced us apart, where our energy has become depleted rather than renewed in community. We have dealt with constantly changing guidelines and we are just so damned tired of it all.
An on-line colleague posted something on Facebook this past week that resonated with me. She spoke of how in congregations one of tension points is often in year 3 of a pastoral relationship. This is when the congregation realizes that that the new minister is not Jesus and is not going to save them and that the minister realized that the congregation isn’t the Promised Land and it feels very personal both for the congregation and the minister. I think we are seeing this played out on a national level. We are coming up on Year 3 of Coronatide. Everyone is exhausted and possibly burnt out. What we’ve been doing hasn’t solved/fixed all the big problems of our communities. We’re tired and angry and would just like to blame someone or behave like a toddler. It’s important to remember that this happens in healthy and unhealthy systems alike, that the ways through are through investing in relationship-building, listening, and making generous assumptions. Relationship building… Listening… Making generous assumptions. (Rev. Elizabeth Dilley – Facebook Post – January 2022 – Paraphrased)
My friends, we are living in trying times. We are living in times that have tested us individually and collectively. But we are still in this together. Let us find ways to cross the divide. To both pull down and to build up.
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity. Amen.
February 6, 2022
Stairs Memorial United Church