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Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

“Where Do We Go From Here?”

Readings: Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Today we are celebrating Black History month as we have for the past nine years. Once again we welcome friends and family members to this joyous occasion. It is an opportunity to celebrate the gifts and talents of this parish that is home to people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds. A few years ago one of our Lay Readers preached for this service. I remember her saying that she hoped that some day soon it would be unnecessary to set aside a special day to celebrate Black History. She hoped and prayed that in this city of ours we would all be of one mind. It reminded me of a question that Martin Luther King asked in a famous speech he gave in 1967. “Where do we go from here?”

He said that in order to answer the question we needed to know where we had been. He went on to explain that when the American Constitution was written there was a rather curious formula that declared that the black was sixty percent of a person. However, at the time of his speech he figured that the percentage had actually dropped to fifty percent since blacks had approximately half of the good things of life and twice the bad things of life when compared to whites. He backed his statement by giving some of the shocking statistics of the United States about the situation of blacks in terms of education, the unemployment rate, and the death rate of blacks serving in Vietnam. He also said that because of our sense of superiority, on the whole we whites do not educate ourselves out of our racial ignorance.

As we celebrate today in our parish, I hope and pray that the last forty years have seen big changes when it comes to racial prejudice. Indeed, we pride ourselves as Canadians at being an open and welcoming nation to people of every race and colour. However, looking at the current statistics about education and crime, it would appear that vast injustices still take place here. In Canada, blacks compared to whites have a higher suicide rate, a greater chance of being incarcerated, a higher high school dropout rate and lower income than their white counterparts. So we do still need to come together in celebration. We do need to continue to ask Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here?” Where is the hope?

The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is a song of consolation written to the people of Israel during the Babylonian exile. It was, for those exiled people, a song of great hope. Its promises helped them to look forward to better times. Those who were imprisoned would be set free. Those living in darkness would be drawn into the light. Those who travelled along desolate highways would be provided with food and shelter and guided to refreshing springs of clear water. It would all come about through embracing a right relationship with God. God, the prophet points out, is so committed to the relationship that freedom is bound to be the result.

The passage resonates in me. It reminds me of one of my Welsh mother’s favourite hymns. I remember her singing it to us in her beautiful, clear soprano voice. The hymn was “Hark, My Soul it is the Lord” from the old Book of Common Praise, but it was one particular verse that she loved. It brought out her maternal instincts. The feminist in me says that it was the surprise to her to see an image of God that was other than white male.

“Can a mother’s tender care
Cease toward the child she bear?
Yes, she may forgetful be
Yet will I remember thee.”

It is a beautiful image of God caring for us even more than a mother cares for her child. And as I reflect on Isaiah’s message the hymn evokes so much more in me than those warm memories. It speaks of a God of consolation who can give hope to any number of people in our world. Today its message might bring hope to the people of Christchurch in Australia as they mourn the loss of life and the destructive powers of the earthquake that destroyed much of their city. It might bring hope to the people of Libya as they continue to fight for freedom. Surely for our black brothers and sisters it brings a message of consolation and hope. For it, and such liberation passages of Scripture have resonated with people throughout history. It is a song that is resonated in the words of many of the Spirituals and other black music. It reminds us of the love of a God who cannot see the petty differences we fabricate, but only the beauty of the image in which God created each one of us.

Perhaps the most important message for us to carry away with us today as we celebrate Black Heritage is the call to Israel to be a “covenant to the people” and a “light to the nations”. It speaks to us of our need to pay attention to the physical reality of people who are in exile whether it is the result of war, natural disaster, poverty, racism or injustice of any kind. Our God is compassionate beyond measure. God feels the suffering of humanity as much as a mother might feel the suffering of her children. God works to bring us all back into the safety and joy of a covenant relationship. The mission of the Church and of each one of us as Christians is to reflect the divine effort of reconciliation in a world which is still characterized by exile, by racial division, and by prejudice.

And so that question, “Where do we go from here?” continues. The Gospel reminds us that God demands our ultimate obedience. Nothing less will do. God needs to be ultimate in our lives. If we are to experience peace within revolution, security within instability, we must be set free by God to serve God. We must be committed, not to what is in it for us, but to God’s teachings and purpose. That is what we need to consider in our every aspect of our lives. It needs to drive our relationships, our friendships, our skills, talents, charisms and gifts. If it does then racial divisions will end. We will be an inclusive community of faith that cannot help but be covenant and light. Amen.
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