Our Faith Should Feel Like A Face Mask

IMG_9094Wes Hall is a prominent business man in Toronto, the director of the SickKids Hospital Foundation. This week, writing to The Globe and Mail, he described a recent experience in the Rosedale neighborhood where he lives in Toronto. An elderly woman fell on the sidewalk, and he hesitated to help her.  As he is a Black Canadian man, a few thoughts went through his mind: what would people think if they saw him standing over her? Would she even want his help? Writing in The Globe a few days earlier, Masai Ujiri, the president of the Toronto Raptors described his experience trying to get down to courtside after his team won the NBA championship in the United States. He was stopped by a security guard who wanted to make sure he had a right to be there. Would the white president of a team have faced the same scrutiny? And, of course, we  should all now know the name of George Floyd, who suffocated to death when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Nine minutes. Try kneeling for nine minutes in prayer, let alone with a struggling, panicking person underneath your knee. It is impossible not to understand the anger, the demand for justice, raging across the United States, for the death of one more Black American at the hands of police.

This week, the former leader of one of our political parties, Stockwell Day, tried to say that there was no systematic racism in Canada, that some how we Canadians are immune to bias and prejudice. It was a ridiculous statement. We all know it to be a lie, whatever race we are. Because either we have to spend time thinking about race, or we travel through life not thinking about it at all. We either learn to question as Mr. Hall and Mr. Ujiri did: will the colour of my skin make me seem less trustworthy? Will the colour of my skin make me seem less worthy in general? Does the colour of my skin mean I have to do more to prove my right to be there? Does the colour of my skin put my life at risk?  Or you never ask those questions, because, as a white Canadian, it just never occurred to you. You don’t think about your race when you pass an elderly woman on the street. You don’t think about your race when you do your job. You don’t think about your race when a police officer pulls you over.

Think about how much space and energy and emotion that opens up in a white Canadian’s life, because they never – ever – think about it. And then think about how exhausting, how demoralizing, how frightening it would be to have to ask those questions every day. As Mr. Hall asked in his essay: would a wealthy, white resident of Rosedale stop to think about how he would be received before helping an elderly woman who had fallen? We know: he would not.

Our gospel this morning is short and sweet, and yet it says everything it needs to about this current time. “Teach them everything I have commanded you,” says Jesus. The word “commanded” stands out. Jesus was a teacher, a friend, a brother. But don’t think that because he delivered his message with kindness that the message itself was soft, somehow, a gentle suggestion. It was not: Jesus taught us to love one another above everything. He demonstrated that love in his life and with his life. But he commanded us to do the same. That is the one and only order we are to follow. It is the guide by which we are charged to live.

The Trinity is meant to define a divinity that exists in relationship with us on many levels, immeasurable levels. A divinity that is all encompassing. In our humanness, we seek a tidier explanation, and so we have God, the parent figure, who loves us no matter what; Jesus, the saviour, who walks beside us; and the Holy Spirit, who is God, around and within. But the sum of that total is one single posture to the world: one of decency, kindness, and caring. It is to greet one another, as Paul writes in our second lesson, with “a holy kiss.”

Mr. Hall made another point in his essay in The Globe and Mail.We are not born racist, full of bias, unconscious or otherwise. Just like the creation of the world described in our first lesson, we enter as loving, open-hearted souls. Over the years, we are taught to judge, by accident or on purpose. Life happens to us, and we pick up prejudices. It is the flaw of humanity: we cannot live in chaos, but in order to have order, some people must stay in their place, while others are put in another.

We can see what that inequity has created: a world where a virus disproportionately affects the poor, a society where people die at higher rates because of their race, a world where some get ahead because of theirs. These past few months have set all these truths right in front of us, and we can’t look away. We are commanded by Jesus not to look away, for Jesus never shied from the uncomfortable truths of society. And the uncomfortable truth is that for change to happen, the people who have benefited from the system for so long, must now join in dismantling it.

I have said this before, and so I say it again: faith should be hard. The love of God should be a comfort to us, the teachings of Jesus are a guide, the Holy Spirit a whisper of encouragement – but we require those three elements of the divinity, because the journey of a person of faith is not easy. It means you don’t stay silent when silence is safer. It means you sacrifice when you are comfortable. It means doing right, even when what is wrong works in your favour. Everyone finds a way to make their faith true in the world. All those many ways matter.

But if your faith always feels like a warm blanket for a cold day, then you are not living up to the commandment from Jesus. Your faith should feel like a face mask: it makes it harder to breathe easily while travelling a broken world.

The answers are not simple. They probably won’t come quickly, although change does have a way of picking up speed. And yet we must take the hard path, the one that Jesus commands us to take.

I am a white man who lives in a nice neighborhood. I can tell you right now, I would think nothing of helping an elderly woman who fell on the street. I have done it without hesitation. That story Mr. Bell told is small in the scheme of things, but it is telling. For when I read it, I thought, he hesitated to help because he was worried about being judged. Yet how was he also judged for not helping?

He was in an impossible position, and he did not put himself there. I know that I am in a position of possibility, and not as much for my ability and skill as I like to tell myself. But I know that I have my commandment from Jesus that I am to work until I die to make what seems impossible possible.

How will we put things in order, as Paul urges us? How will we live in peace? How will we be decent and kind? How will we love one another? Those are the exhausting questions of faith. May they wake you in the morning, come to you in quiet and noisy moments, and be on your mind when you fall asleep. As Jesus commanded, let it be so.

(This sermon is based on Matthew 28:16-20, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)

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