Homily for November 18, 2017
by Michael Shapcott
First Lesson: Isaiah 58: 1 to 12
The Psalm: 72: 1 to 15a
The Second Reading: Revelation 21: 1 to 4
The Gospel: Luke 10: 25-37
None of our lessons, not even the Psalm, were appointed for reading today. So, I’ll start by revealing the hidden agenda behind today’s worship: Driving our hearts and minds towards the third of our strategic planning sessions for Holy Trinity. That session begins just after today’s worship service ends. Our mission statement reads:
“The Church of the Holy Trinity is a community of people who express Christian faith through lives of integrity, justice and compassion. We foster lay leadership, include the doubter and marginalized, and challenge oppression wherever it may be found.”
Community of people… Christian faith… lives of integrity, justice and compassion… lay leadership… include doubter and marginalized… challenge oppression…
Our strategic planning process offers to each of us the opportunity to renew our commitment to that mission – and make it alive in 2017, and 2018 and the years after that.
Our opening hymn, Hard Times, was the most popular melody in 1854 – literally top of the charts in North America and Europe. I have no doubt that many Holy Trinity parishioners at that time would have gathered around the piano in their parlours, or if they were lucky, the accordion, for this song. As the hard times of the late 19th century grew more extreme, some moved from the sentimentalism of Stephen Foster to embrace hatred. Here in Toronto, where the disease-ridden ghettoes were filled with poor immigrants, mob violence and outright discrimination targeted Jewish and Irish people.
The poor were blamed for their poverty. Sadly, this cycle was repeated in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s and is going on today. At first, there is sympathy for the poor, then the poor are attacked verbally and often physically.
But gradually, the focus in the late 19th and early 20th century began to shift to the real culprits: the extremely rich. The Gilded Age, as it was called, saw an unprecedented accumulation of money, as well as political power, in the hands of a few families. In the early 1800s, the Vanderbilt family owned a small sailing vessel in New York City. The next generation was led by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in the United States. His son, William Henry Vanderbilt, was the richest man in the world. Alongside Vanderbilt (with a monopoly on railroads), were Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Astor (real estate) and dozens of others.
The rich and powerful rigged the economic and political systems to enrich themselves. Collectively, they became known as the ‘robber barons’. The resistance to the robber barons didn’t grow by accident, there were those who started to educate and organize. Many of you will know that there was a distinctively Christian response to economic inequality that also had a powerful impact on politics and the economy.
Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, a pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, was a leader in the “social gospel” movement. In “The Theology of the Social Gospel,” written 100 years ago, Rauschenbusch put the focus of Christian action squarely on six “social sins”: Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (“the social group gone mad”) and mob action, militarism, and class contempt.
You’ll find a quote from Rauschenbusch in today’s bulletin: “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” Today’s Collect is from Rauschenbusch – a celebration of the beauty of the world.
Rauschenbusch knew his Bible. Just before the Isaiah passage that Suzanne read this morning, the prophet – speaking directly to the worshipping community – warns that personal faith practices are not enough. True faith, we are told, takes the form of practical actions in the here and now. The highest praise for a person of faith is to be called a ‘repairer of the breach, a restorer of streets to live in’.
The Psalm picks up this theme but instead of focusing on those in the faith community, the Psalmist looks to political authorities. Our translation uses ‘chosen one’ and ‘anointed’ – which leads some Christians to think that this is a passage about a future Messiah. But the Tanakh, the Jewish translation of Scripture, uses the more direct word: ‘king’. Kings in Israel assumed office only after they were anointed. Today, we would use the word ‘prime minister’ or ‘legislature’ to refer to the ones chosen through elections to serve in leadership.
The Psalm is a practical guide to those with responsibility for governance: bring justice, save the children of the poor, protect the lowly and the poor from violence and oppression, defeat those who are unjust. That’s a pretty decent legislative agenda for any government even today.
Moving to Revelation, please note that the new Jerusalem envisaged by John of Patmos is not some celestial wonder in the great by-and-by. The new Jerusalem – where there will be no tears – comes down from heaven to earth. “The dwelling place of God is with humankind”, we read. Please join our Advent reflections on Revelation, which starts this coming Sunday, to continue to explore John’s striking vision of a corrupt present and his call for heaven on earth.
And then there’s Luke and the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knows what heaven on earth looks like. It’s about practical caring for the real needs of those around us. There is a time for the prophetic anger of Isaiah, and there is a need for pragmatic and smart solutions to the real and immediate needs of people today.
And that’s where the social gospel comes in. Rauschenbusch and others who embraced this movement left their mark in a thousand policies and practices. Here at Holy Trinity, John Frank and his wife Mary created a home for the social gospel and made a practical impact on depression-era poverty. Canada’s national health care system was created by the late, great Tommy Douglas, a Baptist pastor who saw the realities of sickness and injustice amongst his congregation and his family, took decisive and faithful action.
In the UK, the social gospel took a different name but with the same determination that faith and morals have a clear role in public policies. One of the great theologians of the mid-20th century in the Church of England was William Temple, who would rise to be Archbishop of Canterbury by the early 1940s. In his book ‘Christianity and Social Order’, Temple wrote:
“The existing system is [to be] challenged on moral grounds. It is not merely that some who ‘have not’ are jealous of some who ‘have’. The charge against our social system is one of injustice. The banner so familiar in earlier unemployed or socialist processions – ‘damn your charity, we want justice’ – vividly exposes the system as seen by its critics. If the present order is taken for granted or assumed to be sacrosanct, charity from the more or less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood-money. Why should some be in the position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?”
Temple joined with the leading political thinkers and activists of his time as one of the architects of the ‘welfare state’ – the new society in post-war Britain including health, housing and income support. Not a perfectly-formed heaven on earth, but a huge improvement from the depression era. Even in 2017, after decades of full-on assaults on the welfare state by political and corporate interests, the UK retains a residual set of policies and practices meant to fulfill at least some of the moral requirements of good government.
For his efforts over several decades, Temple was hounded by senior politicians and much of the media. He was told that church people should stick to Sunday preaching about personal sin and salvation, and leave economic and social policy to others. In a newspaper cartoon, Temple was shown in his clerical frock, standing at a fence marked ‘economic fields’. A business person points to a sign that says ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’. The caption underneath reads: “Here sir, don’t you know that this is private property?” Temple was constantly being lectured that morality, Christian morality, has no place in political, social and economic policy.
All of which takes us to November 19, 2017, at Holy Trinity. We are here, in this place, in this city, in this province, in this country, in this world. In a few minutes, all of you are invited to join in the third of our three strategic review sessions.
The world that we are looking out onto – the world that begins with Trinity Square, and the Eaton Centre and includes the corporate power of Bay Street and the political power of Toronto City Hall, and spreads from there – is a world in which there is the greatest concentration of wealth since the Gilded Age a century ago. In the last year alone, billionaires across the planet increased their wealth by 20%. Josef Stadler, head of UBS’s global high net worth division, was quoted three weeks ago as saying:
“We’re at an inflection point. Wealth concentration is as high as in 1905, this is something billionaires are concerned about. The problem is the power of interest on interest – that makes big money bigger and, the question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
The power of interest on interest is a powerful moral issue in Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The Canadian theologian Chris Lind, who worshipped here at Holy Trinity, wrote extensively on the ‘moral economy’. Many theologians and Christian activists are waging a campaign for a moral economy – and we at Holy Trinity well-positioned to add our voices.
Mr. Stadler is right to worry about a strike back in these times, just as there was concerted and effective action against the robber barons in the Gilded Age. But it’s not enough to rage against injustice, nor it is enough to have a strong analysis and a morally-sound response. We need action. Andy Flannagan, co-director of Christians in Politics and director of Christians on the Left in London in the UK, has just written a book called ‘Those Who Show Up’. He points to the sparse minutes of the first meeting of a Christian social action group formed on the 22 of May, 1787. The minutes, available in the British Library, record five actions from that first meeting:
They decided the current law was bad, and they wanted an unjust practice ended.
They decided the committee should have a quorum of three people.
They selected one person as treasurer, but said the treasurer couldn’t spend any money without the consent of the full committee.
They agreed to announce that they had formed a committee, and invite others to join.
They decided to go to a nearby pub for a drink.
More than 330 years later, that pub still exists and you can visit and have a drink, if you like. The group decided to call itself the London Abolition Committee and because they showed up… and didn’t give up… two decades later a law passed in the British Parliament outlawing the slave trade.
Yes, history is made by people who show up. So, please come to our strategic review meeting. Bring your ideas, and bring your energy.
The world is staggering under an economic system that is rigged to make the rich richer, and to generate increasing inequality and inequity. Our country is staggering under centuries of murderous policies of cultural genocide against our Indigenous sister and brothers. Climate change, food insecurity, racism, poverty, transphobia and homophobia, misogyny, homelessness – the list of profound injustices is long and deep. It’s easy to be overwhelmed.
So, what does heaven on earth look like, right here, right now, in Trinity Square in 2017? Look for some practical inspiration from the Good Samaritan. When he approached the half-dead person, offered some practical and immediate help, then took him to an inn, where he could rest and recuperate.
There’s an old saying that begins with a question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. That is perfectly good advice if you happen to want to eat a large elephant until there is nothing left.
Our task, at Holy Trinity, is not to eat elephants, but to grow them. Not just one, but a whole herd to tackle the many injustices and issues that face our community in these times. We want to build, from strength, the capacity to truly fulfill our mission of strengthening community in a fractured world, expressing Christian faith, seeking justice and challenging oppression.
So, the real question for us, as we head into the strategic planning session, is how do you grow an elephant, and not just one, but a whole herd of them. Everyone amongst you who have lived with a teenager knows the answer to that question: You feed it, constantly… and then again.
So, let’s all of us set aside the notion that we have scant resources to take on big challenges. Just as Jesus taught us, in the feeding of the multitude, there is plenty for all if only we approach the problem correctly.
Let us move into the strategic planning session with a sense that each of us can help feed the process of building community, challenging oppression and seeking justice – building heaven on earth here in Trinity Square, in Toronto and in Canada.