A Sermon Preached on The Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 24, 2021 at 11:00 am
For an Online Service with The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete (somewhat expanded).
The readings used were Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 128, and Mark 1:14-20. I used these by mistake – they are the readings in The Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church of Canada – but not in the Church of England’s Common Worship Lectionary. Ninety-five per cent of the time the calendars match – but not this Sunday. This is what happens when you rely on North American lectionary sites.
“Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.”
Whenver I read this passage from Jonah I remember my walk from Victoria to Seattle five years ago. After taking the ferry from Victoria to the Olympic Peninsula, walking along the north shore to Port Townsend and walking along the southern part of Whidbey Island, I took the ferry over to Mukilteo, a small city about 25 miles north of downtown Seattle (40 km). Since the 1960s it has been a suburb of Seattle, and I quickly crossed over the line into Everett, which is where Boeing now makes all its jets. I spent the night in a motel in Everett by the I-5, and the next day walked to another suburb, Shoreline. The next day I walked into the centre of Seattle. I did walk for three days through the greater metropolitan area of Seattle. I could have walked another three or four, I suspect. I did not stop and announce, “Forty days more, and Seattle shall be overthrown!” – although some might argue that the city could use some repentance.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus inaugurates his ministry with these words:
Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ · μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Have we repented? Do we believe the good news?
- The good news is that God’s kingdom is near.
- The good news is that the kingdom is not to be found in the Roman Empire of Tiberius Caesar, or Pontius Pilate, or the client ruler Herod Antipas, but in the God of Israel. It is not to be identified with the Hellenic Republic, the government of Canada, the Queen in Parliament of the United Kingdom, or the new administration in the United States. However much they may be influenced by Christianity, they are not the kingdom.
- The good news, as Jesus’s disciple came to understand it, is that the kingdom has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. His healings, his exorcisms, and his various other miracles are signs of his rule and power.
- The good news is that in the resurrection from the dead of Jesus, God the Father has inaugurated the renewing of creation.
- The good news is that we participate in that renewal by becoming part of the body of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, through baptism and communion and other spiritual practices.
- The good news is that we are no longer under the power of sin and death, but live under the forgiveness of God and the grace of the empowering Holy Spirit.
- The good news is that God extends his grace beyond Israel and makes it available to all humanity, to you and to me.
However. If this is all good news, we are not unchanged. God’s spirit comes upon us, and we become driven by the spirit.
- Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and so we may enter some difficult places.
- We might speak in tongues, or have gifts of prophecy, or be called to pray and lay hands upon people.
- As John the Baptist did with Herod Antipas, as Jesus did with Pilate, as Paul did with governors and Caesar, so the spirit may call us to speak truth to power.
This is all change. The Greek word μετανοία is usually translated as “repentance”, but it literally means “change of mind.” At our advanced ages, are we willing to be changed and transformed? Do we understand that we are called to repent and believe every day of our life?
But many of us do not want to change. We want to run away, as Jonah did. In chapter one of that short book he receives a call to go to Ninevah, but he avoids it by getting on a ship, and we are told that the ship is lashed by a great storm by God. When the sailors discover that Jonah is the cause of their turmoil they toss him over, but God preserves him in the belly of a great fish. After Jonah prays – that’s chapter 2 – he is spat up on the shore, and he accepts his calling and goes to Ninevah, a gentile city.
Are we prepared to humble ourselves, as the people of Ninevah did? Do we take seriously the way they changed their lives through fasting and putting on basic, humble clothes?
Of course, many of us probably think that we do not need to change much, or do not have much of which to repent. In the Orthodox tradition one makes one’s confession to a priest by reviewing the Ten Commandments. I suspect that if we did that there would be few of us who recently committed murder, dishonoured our parents, committed theft, were involved in adultery. I sincerely doubt that we covet our neighbour’s donkey, house, or spouse. As we worship the God of Israel, we do not worship other gods, and so we are all right there. I suspect most of us are not involved in idolatry, although perhaps we occasionally take the Lord’s name in vain – but I expect we keep our oaths and mostly tell the truth. So, while we may still be able to number our great and manifold sins, when it comes to repentance we are more like an eight year old child in the process of making their first confession, rather than a mass murderer before a court of justice.
Personal and Collective
However, many of us have benefited from the sins of others in ages past. Let me speak of my own situation. My ancestors, poor pious Presbyterians from the borders of Scotland, and Methodists from Ireland, came to what was then the province of Canada East and the colony of New Brunswick in the 1830s. They were given land to farm – land that in the preceding century, without treaty or compensation, was taken from the original inhabitants, the Abenaki and the Mi’kmaq. This land served as the foundation of the succeeding generations fortunes.
Do I owe something to the descendants of the people whose land was taken from them? A naive attitude is that this was all in the past, and that those who suffered should just get over it. However, as William Falkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Canada the result of the taking of land resulted in almost two centuries of poverty, discrimination, and forced assimilation. This has led to inter-generational trauma, a higher rate of incarceration compared to other populations, and a plethora of diseases and addictions; while my ancestors and I have thrived, they have diminished. It did not have to be this way – the growth and development of Canada was never a zero-sum game.
Now, let me be clear. I do not feel guilt in this, except insofar as I have occasionally embodied racist attitudes and assumptions. I personally did not participate in action against Indigenous peoples, and so I would argue that I bear no personal responsibility. However, as part of a society built upon colonialism and imperialism – and, I would suggest, forms of genocide – I have a part to play in responding to past wrongs and present injustices; there is a collective responsibility. So as a Christian I do need to at the very least let go of some things – perhaps involving the transfer of government land, a recognition of the sovereign autonomy and rights of the Abenaki, the Mi’kmaq, and other Indigenous peoples whose territory I have lived on.
This is, of course, reparations. The idea strikes terror into the hearts of “white folk”, thinking that it means they will lose their homes or have to pay dramatically higher taxes, or that companies involved in the exploitation of natural resources will be prevented from any activity. But, in fact, reparations have been paid in the past to different groups.
- In April 1914 the Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship carrying passengers from Calcutta to Vancouver, was forced to return to India without allowing most of its people to enter Canada. Although they were British subjects, the fact that they were Indians – mostly Sikhs, but also some Muslims and Hindus – meant that they were unwelcome in the “white” Dominion of Canada. In 2008 and 2016 apologies were offered by two different Prime Ministers, and a modest amount of federal money was made available to mark the event on its centenary.
- As in the United States, during the Second World War Canada interned Canadians and immigrants of Japanese descent, even though they were of no demonstrable threat to national security. The internees lost their lands and, even after the war, were banned from living on the west coast of British Columbia. In 1988 the Prime Minister offered an apology, CAD $21,000 was paid to each surviving internee – a token amount in comparison to what they lost, – and money was set up to provide services for the community of survivors.
- From the 1850 to 1980s the governments of Canada sought to assimilate Indigenous peoples through forced assimilation (which, under the Genocide Convention, is a form of genocide). The primary instrument used to do this was the network of Indian Residential Schools which were enthusiastically operated by all the major church denominations until 1970. Mortality at the schools was high, reaching 50% in some places. Children were not allowed to speak their own languages, practice any of their spiritual heritage, or interact with their parents. They were obliged to work from their early teens, but were also nutritionally deprived. The Prime Minister in 2008 offered a formal apology, following on a CAD $1.9 billion compensation plan.
But, arguably, more has to happen. 89% of Canada’s land is considered “Crown land” – public land held in the name of the monarch on behalf of the federal government and the ten provinces. Why do the various Indigenous peoples in Canada not have greater rights over these lands? Any Indigenous title over such lands seems to be obtained only through lawsuits that take years to settle. The courts have been clear that the various governments need to negotiate treaties with the many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, but no matter how many good words the government representatives seem to make, it is slow and tortuous. Perhaps “Crown land” needs to be renamed “The Creator’s Land” so that settlers understand that they are merely co-stewards with the Indigenous of the territory, not the sovereign lords.
Further, autonomy needs to be granted to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. In the 1880s the federal government used the Indian Act to impose band councils, thereby undermining the traditional means of governance. These band councils are still in place, and in some places serve as a means to “divide and conquer” the population of a First Nation. The Indian Act needs to be repealed and replaced with treaties that respect the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and acknowledges their right to govern according to their own rules.
What would reparations look like? As Christians we need to not only become allies of oppressed peoples, but we ought to examine our own roles in this. My dissertation “Unsettling Theology” identifies seven different theological ideas that legitimized the violent theft of land, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, and the assimilation of survivors. These need to be repented of by the whole church, and more Christlike theologies held up that will prevent us from engaging in such sinful behaviour in the future.
This may feel quite removed from life here in Greece, and it undoubtedly is. I invite you to come up with examples of collective repentance that may be more meaningful to your situation. I will insist on the importance of communal repentance, though – if it was necessary for the whole of Ninevah to repent, so it is for us.
Jesus calls his disciples to follow him and go fishing for people. Much colonisation and exploitation has been justified by evangelism. True evangelism is by persuasion, not by the use of force, and the credibility of the Christian faith has been damaged by its co-opting of violence and alliance with worldly powers. As we seek to go fishing ourselves may we be conscious that in Christ Jesus we have a king who did not grasp onto divinity, but emptied himself into human form as a servant. As we seek to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God may we remember that his throne was a cross and his crown was made of thorns. As we receive the good news, may we “change our minds”, and become ever more like him.