Anglican Church of Canada
June 6th, 2020 Trinity Sunday
A few minutes ago we heard the familiar story of Creation from the very first chapter of the Bible. But we heard it a little differently, in an unfamiliar translation, by the literary scholar Robert Alter. For decades Professor Alter has for decades been the leading expert on the poetic style of the Hebrew Bible, and he has recently completed a massive project, his own translation of the whole Hebrew Bible. In this translation it has been his central concern to try to imitate the poetic rhythm of the original in English.
I asked you to listen to the Creation story with new ears, to listen for what you perhaps had never noticed before. What struck me most reading through this new translation was the sense of careful, loving order in God’s preparation of the world. Everything is put precisely in its place, in a fine balance; everything serves to support everything else in an intricate web of life. Creation is not something to be taken for granted: it has been called forth precariously out of chaos, and it is only God’s ordering, caretaking presence that prevents it from slipping back into that chaos.
The same sense of precarious order is true also of our common life as human beings. The ancient Middle East was a tough neighbourhood, and the Israelites were aware that a healthy society, one where people can flourish, is a precious thing. They saw enough counter-examples: the slave society of Egypt, the violent chaos of the book of Judges, the cruel military might of Assyria, even their own tendency to slip into a class society where the rich exploit the poor. A healthy society, they understood, was a gift of God: it was God who called his people out of chaos and slavery into an ordered community of care and respect. That is why the law is so important in the Old Testament. Just like the careful distinctions of Genesis 1, that called a life-giving order out of chaos, the commandments of the Torah call into being a life-giving way of being together as community.
For anyone paying attention to what is going on in the world around us, it might seem that this order is coming undone. Aside from the environmental crisis, which has been threatening creation for some time; aside from the Covid lockdown, which has turned our lives on end for several months; now we see thousands in the streets of American cities, facing off against police wielding tear gas and rubber bullets. We have seen rioting, looting, and arson; but we have also seen hundreds of thousands who continue to protest peacefully with determination and righteous anger. We have seen stirring scenes of police taking a knee with the protesters; unfortunately, we have seen far too many instances of police overreaction, violently attacking peaceful protesters, journalists, even medics.
The social order seems in danger, and that is scary. But at the bottom of it lies the recognition, which is now been shared by more and more white North Americans, that the social order has always been out of whack for our fellow citizens of colour. When they face systemic disadvantages in their education, prejudice, and the threat of death at the hands of those whose job it is to protect society, then the social contract we all enjoy is not working for them. The forces of violence and chaos are never far off.
Of course any kind of racism is unacceptable for a Christian. Not only because we are bound to exercise kindness and respect at all times, but also because of our fundamental beliefs about God. The creation story tells us that God created humankind in God’s own image. Every human being, man or woman, of whatever race, bears the sacred image of God. And the human form was hallowed when Jesus came among us and took human flesh – every person, whatever the colour of their skin, bears the image of Christ. And, as we heard in the Pentecost story last week, the Holy Spirit comes equally upon people of all nations. Racism is an offence not only against our fellow human beings; it is an offence against God’s image within us. It is blasphemy.
The other creation story in Genesis 2 tells us that God formed humankind from the earth, and breathed the breath of life, the Spirit, into us. In last week’s gospel reading we hear of Jesus, in a conscious echo of that story, breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples in the upper room. The image points to something fundamental in the way the Bible understands what it is to be human. The Christian tradition uses the word soul to talk about what is most important in each of us. But whenever we see the word soul in the Old Testament, we need to remember that something has gotten lost in translation. The Hebrew word is much more concrete: nephesh, which is usually translated soul, really means the breath of life in our throats. What makes us most fully human, in the Hebrew understanding, is our neediness, our vulnerability, the precarious nature of human life, dependent upon God’s breath, God’s Spirit, for each breath that keeps us alive.
I have to reflect on this when I think of the death of George Floyd. What is it about this one man’s death, after so many other unjust and terrible killings, that has proven to be the last straw? I think the account of his murder, calmly and coldly crushed to death by a man in uniform kneeling on his back for almost nine minutes, ignoring his pleading, his anguished cries of “I can’t breathe” – touches something deep inside of us. What can be more human than the need we share, each of us, to take the next breath, to receive the gift of life anew every minute of our lives – and what can be more inhuman than to take that away from another person. On some deep level, we recognize that, whatever the colour of our skin, whatever our background, we are all George Floyd. We all bear the image of God, we all receive the breath of life, we are all of us, minute by minute, called forth from the chaos of death by God’s loving word.
I want to conclude by inviting you to contemplate an icon of the Trinity, which you will find in the order of service. It is the familiar image of the three strangers or angels that came to visit Abraham, seated around a table: a common and ancient motif for the Trinity. But in this case, the three are clearly all women, and they are clearly of three different races: South Asian, African, and East Asian.
I wonder what your emotional reaction is as you contemplate this icon. I find, for myself, that it is complex and multi-layered. First and foremost it gives me joy, joy at the reminder that God is more wonderful and varied and richer than we usually imagine. But there is also something deep within me, a small niggling anxiety, that wants to know if it’s alright to depict God like this. Consciously I know it is, more than alright, and rejoice in it with a full heart; but unconsciously a voice comes, out of my childhood no doubt, that reminds me this isn’t the God I grew up with.
That is the voice of racism. How can one doubt that God, who made all humankind in God’s image, is less fittingly represented by a black woman than by a white man? There is nothing up for debate here: to suggest that is to suggest that black people and women are somehow less, not as close to God. Consciously and unequivocally I embrace this image and all it stands for. But I know there is that shadow of hesitation in my heart that needs to be overcome, a seed that was planted by the environment we all grew up in. That is the racism of nice people, people like us who reject racism with all our will. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about it; it is not something we would ever choose. But we need to deal with it.
My hope and prayer is that we are standing at another turning-point in race relations, such as we have not seen since the days of Martin Luther King. As Christians we are invited to get on board, to commit ourselves anew: first to pray, that our creator’s intention of full equality may be realized; secondly to speak up, as Christ taught us, whenever the opportunity is there, against all racism; and thirdly, to seek out and listen to the stories of our black and First Nations neighbours, as painful as those stories may be, and listening go deep within our own hearts to do the honest work of repentance and contrition.