Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Reel Theology 2019 - The Green Book

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This is the first Sunday of our 2019 Reel Theology Sermon series. There were so many intriguing movies nominated for Best Picture for the Golden Globes this year, it was hard to choose just five to discuss here with you folks. This year, instead of picking six Best Picture nominees for the sermon series as we did last year, we decided to include a distinctly award-winning Canadian film, Indian Horse, which we will be showcasing in a couple of weeks. For three of the six movies, we will be showing them here in the sanctuary on the Friday evening before the Sunday they are featured. For more information, just have a look at the poster board near the office or ask me after worship. This week we are looking the movie, The Green Book. I’m thinking that not many of you had a chance to see the movie—has anyone other than Christopher and me? It was released in exactly the wrong timing for this series – a month before Christmas and was on its way out of the theatre by the time it was nominated for the Golden Globes and being included in our list of movies. It should be released to DVD by the end of February. I will give a bit of summary so I apologize in advance for revealing the story but you need to know the outcome of the movie so I can talk about the theological implications of this wonderful tale. 
The movie is based on the true story of when the celebrated black pianist Don Shirley travelled through the southern United States for an eight-week concert tour in 1962, two years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He hired a white man to drive for him and, ostensibly, to act as his bodyguard as they got deeper and deeper south, where Jim Crow laws were in effect and his presence would like be problematic. The driver, an Italian named Tony Vallelonga who preferred to be called Tony Lip, had been a bouncer and enforcer for a local nightclub and was out of work while the club was being renovated. The movie begins with Tony waking up at home mid-morning by a hullabaloo happening in his living room. His male family members and friends are excitedly watching a game on TV. He asks them what on earth are they doing in his home and they indicate they are keeping an eye on the workers his wife hired. He turns to see his wife offering glasses of water to two black repairmen. When they are finished drinking, the two men place the glasses in the sink. After they leave, Tony goes into the kitchen, carefully takes the glasses from the sink and puts them into the trash can. After a few days of unemployment, Tony finds himself recommended as a driver to a Dr. Shirley. He is given Dr. Shirley and is surprised to learn that Dr. Shirley lives in a lavish suite atop of Carnegie Hall. And he is not a medical doctor but rather a musician. And he’s black. After some negotiation and a phone call from Dr. Shirley to Mrs. Vallelonga in which an understanding is reached concerning the need for Tony to be home for Christmas, Tony agrees to drive for Don Shirley. Before they leave New York, the management company hands Tony a book, The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by a fellow named Victor Green. Folks just referred to it as The Green Book. As black people 1962 did not have freedom of movement or action in States which the Jim Crow laws were active, the Green Book was a guide to services and places that would permit black people on their premises.
As Don and Tony travel from New York to the south, they get to know each other, and Tony begins to recognize that his preconceived notions of what it means to be black in the United States might not be fully accurate. And Don, a man used to protecting himself and not showing anyone, much less a white person, any vulnerability, finds himself opening up to the white man chauffeuring him mile after mile. Tony embraces his role as bodyguard and Don sees that a white man can be compassionate and caring. So much happens during their travels but I will leave them for you to discover when you get a chance to watch the movie. It’s enough to say the tour ends with Don’s final concert being a bust. Tony has managed, through many a trial and tribulation, to get Don to each of his scheduled concerts. They arrive at a big fancy resort for the culmination of the tour, an hour before the start time and they are hungry. Tony is invited to eat in the dining room, but Don is told that he can eat in the kitchen. One of America’s finest pianists, dressed in tails and who is there for all the white people to hear, is not permitted into the dining room. Well, one thing leads to another and Tony and Don leave. It is blizzarding in New York when they get home on Christmas Day. Tony invites Don up to his apartment for supper. Don declines. Tony arrives to much fanfare and settles down to eat Christmas supper. There’s a knock at the door and in walks Don. Tony’s entire family, who is sitting at the dinner table, fall into a stunned silence. Tony hugs Don and turns to his family and says this is my friend Don Shirley, make some room for him. Everyone at the table erupts in a chorus of welcoming and shuffling as a place is set for Don.
This movie has many themes worth exploring—homophobia, classism, family disfunction, self-determination to name just a few. Racism against black people is, however, the primary theme of this movie. While the story takes place in 1962, I’m thinking the overall sentiments of the movie will feel familiar to many folks living in the States today. With the election of president who leads from a place of fear and scarcity and who often refers to people of colour and immigrants as not deserving the fullness of what it means to be cared for and loved as he would care for and love himself, with this President’s leadership, the people of the United States are finding that the equality that was fought for with the Civil Rights Movement has not yet been fully realized. And it’s not just the States. Before we Canadians get to sitting up too high on our horses, let us not forget that we have our own struggles with racism. Some of our most notable issues centre around relationships with Canada’s indigenous people, our history of blocking Chinese immigration and interning Japanese people in the last century and how, in some places in Canada, refugees and immigrants are viewed with suspicion today. Did you realize that the last school that segregated blacks from whites in Canada was closed in Nova Scotia just in 1983? This is all to say, we are not immune to the social issues in this movie, despite us living north of the 49th parallel.
Tony obviously grew up in time that is much different from today. His childhood would have been informed during post-war America. His country was divided on whether or not a particular race of people were fully human and whether those people were worthy of all that their Constitution promised its citizens. Heck, not only were black people not considered equal but neither were women. In fact, the United States is one of only a very few countries which have not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. (Canada ratified that Convention in 1981.) Which is to say, a person cannot help the environment in which they are raised. They cannot help the beliefs of their parents, their community or their church. When a neighbourhood or school has little diversity, it is hard to learn about people and situations that differ from your own experience. It is easy for children to grow up thinking that the way they experienced life as a child and teenager is how the whole world operates.
Last summer, our 14-year-old daughter had a summer full of revelations that not all people have lived life like hers. We have kept our upright deep freeze in the garage, and we use it primarily for the beef we order directly from a rancher. The beef arrives wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. One day Abby came home asked, ‘do you know…that not everyone has a freezer of beef in their garage? That all meat is not wrapped in brown paper? Other people put their freezers inside the house. They use it to store other food. And then, ping ponging. Do you know that not everyone stores medicines in the hall closet? They keep it in a kitchen cupboard—why do we keep ours in the hall closet? It makes sense to keep it all in the kitchen.’ These were remarkable realizations for her—someone who understands that sexual and gender identities can be fluid and exist on a continuum was shocked that other folks organize their household storage differently than we do.
Our scripture reading today is a familiar one—love is patient, love is kind. The greatest of these love. But what is often missed when this piece from 1st Corinthians is read at weddings, is that middle part. The bit about being a child and speaking, thinking and reasoning like a child and then putting an end to childish things when becoming an adult. It goes onto to say, now I know only in part, then I will know fully. I cannot help but think of a young adult I was visiting with on New Year’s Eve. She mentioned that she was looking forward to the year 2020 when she could keep saying, well, it’s all hindsight now—cause hindsight is 20/20. And, isn’t that the truth? How often have you thought, jeez, if only I knew then what I know now? Life might not have necessarily been easier but maybe it would have lessened the fear that came with the uncertainty.
I believe this is what the Corinthians reading is reminding us of today. That things change. That, over time, situations, beliefs, understandings, experiences change. I feel this is what progress is all about. Decisions and determinations are formed and made at certain periods in our lives. But, as we grow up and as we experience the world outside of our neighbourhoods and schools, as we meet others from walks of life that are not similar to ours, as we learn how others were impacted by the laws and policies of our governments and our society, we begin to understand that not all decisions are good for all people. That what feels comfortable and safe for one group of people, does not feel at all safe or comfortable for another. That loving our neighbour as our self means our neighbour needs access to self-determination, healthcare, education and housing just as we have it ourselves. Progress means to take information that is new to us and we use it to reevaluate what was and how things currently are, we use this information that is new to us to see if adjustments are required in order for the health and care of all of humanity, that the health and care for all of creation is considered, not just one group of people, not just one type of people, not just yourself. And we don’t know the totality of human experience in the world. We can’t know. And so, we must be willing and open to hear from people whose lives are lived differently than our own. Just because they don’t store their beef in the garage freezer doesn’t mean they are wrong.
This is exactly why diversity in all of our social systems is so necessary. Why diversity in business and academia is important. Why diversity in leadership is vital. Diversity of thought, of belief, of gender, of sexual identity, of mobility, of race and colour and of religion. Because, when one is a child, one speaks like a child. One thinks like a child. One reasons as a child. But when one grows up, the childish things must end and what had been seen dimly in a mirror can be seen more clearly, face to face. Tony was taught that black people were so significantly different from him, that they needed to be treated in a different manner than Caucasian people. This belief would have come from the society and family dynamic in which he was raised. As an adult, he had no reason to think otherwise. Until he was confronted with the knowledge that a person he knew, and by extension, a whole group of people, was being held down by forces that were unjust and cruel. At first, he did not seem to be willing to look into the mirror to see more clearly. But, through the love of his wife encouraging him and not shutting him out when his behaviour was less than stellar and with the persistence of Don Shirley to not have his humanity ignored and shuttered away for someone else’s comfort, Tony allowed his heart to open to the wonderful human being sitting in the back seat of his car. And he allowed his ears to be open to hearing about that man’s life—the joys and the struggles of it. And he allowed his eyes to be open to seeing how that man was treated—simply for the colour of his skin—not because of his education, wealth or behaviour.
1st Corinthians says, if I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels and do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Tony’s wife was filled with love. For her husband but not at the cost of the world. Don was filled with love. For himself and for the man driving him, although that man could not initially see too far beyond what he knew as a child. And Tony was filled with love. For a nation that could be better. For community that could be stronger. For a friendship that could be seen more clearly face-to-face. Because he was willing to put away childish ways and know, from the core of his being, that faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. And for this, we give thanks to God. Amen.

Ignoring, Extinguishing, Seeking the Light - Epiphany 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

If you attended worship on the Sunday before Christmas, the fourth of Advent and then came for one of the Christmas Eve services, you may have noticed that the cross and the communion table went from being covered in blue to being covered in white. Stephen and I wore white stoles. You’ll see that the white remains even though it’s been nearly two weeks since Christmas. The liturgical colour of white—liturgy or liturgical, by the way, is just a fancy way of referring to religious ceremony or ritual—the colour marking this particular religious service that we find ourselves participating together in today is white. Today, along with hundreds of other churches around the world, we use white to recognize that today marks a significant day in the life of Jesus. We use white marking his birth, baptism, resurrection. And we use white today because it is Epiphany—the day on which the coming of the Messiah was revealed to the Gentiles, to those who were not of the Jewish faith.
Epiphany immediately follows the twelve days of the season of Christmas. For those of us whose world is very much shaped by the secular world, it sometimes is a funny thing to consider that Christmas is more than the day after Christmas Eve. Our faith tradition has it that our high holy day is the evening before the first day of Christmas after which we go home and move into a more secular celebration of the season. You are forgiven if you walked into the sanctuary today and were surprised that the nativity is still up and the decorations have not yet been put away. Because Christmas is over. If you haven’t already been back to work or kicked the kids out the door to school with a sigh of relief at the sudden blessed silence of everyone have been returned to their regularly scheduled programing, you will likely be doing so tomorrow. And yet, here we gather, amongst the decorations of a season gone by. We do so because the tale of the Christ Child’s birth, the nativity story, did not end on Christmas Eve. However we are not a patient people. We don’t want to wait for the story to be doled out, piece by piece. We want the whole story, told altogether. And not all people come week by week to hear the story of Christ Jesus told out in a measured way. They come, all for their own reasons, during the high holy times, and it is vital for them to hear the story from start to finish amongst a group of folks choosing to congregate, to hear together the story of the Word becoming incarnate with all the world. And so, we tell the story, from the revelation to Mary that she is expecting the child she is to name Emmanuel, God With Us, all the way to the revelation of that child, the one to become our Messiah, to the foreign scholars, the strangers from a strange land, arriving on camels.
We tell the story as if each moment happens one immediately after the other. Mary is suddenly pregnant, Joseph does not dismiss her, they travel to Bethlehem, no room at the Inn, birthing and swaddling clothes, the shepherds are visited by a multitude of angels, they travel to Bethlehem, the wise ones interpret the star as a sign, they too travel to Bethlehem. From the very start of this tale, you know the timeline has been compressed. There are very few verses between Mary being told by Gabriel that she is expecting to Gabriel telling the shepherds they are to be the first to welcome the Christ Child who was born in a stable and is now lying in manger. Anyone who has had to wait from the time a loved one has shared the glorious news that there is to be a baby born into the family, for those who have been told they have been matched with a child for adoption, the arrival of new, young family member takes days, weeks, months to happen.
The end of the nativity also seems a bit rushed. The ones we know as the Wise Men, the Magi lived far, far away. They saw the star, knew the Messiah had been born and so they began travelling. By all scholarly accounts, it is thought it would have taken months and months for the Magi to get to Mary and meet Jesus. So, this sacred story of ours that we hear in its totality each Christmas Eve, begins with months and months of waiting for Mary’s pregnancy to come to its fruition and it ends after months and months of traveling by the non-Jewish scholars to which the Messiah’s presence was first revealed. Which is why, liturgically, we do our best to keep out the Christmas decorations celebration the birth of Christ, and we keep keeping on with laying out white in our sanctuaries, we do this because, because the twelve days between the start of the Christmas season to now, the day of Epiphany, marks the passage of time that is not always understood or acknowledged as we tell the tale on Christmas Eve.
There are so many aspects of the Epiphany section of the nativity story that we can consider. Who exactly were the ones that saw the star and why were they thought to be so wise? What was Herod’s deal in being so worried about the birth of a vulnerable baby? And what about the meeting with Herod had the Wise Men so concerned that they defied his orders to return to him after they met the baby who was to become the Light of the world? Today, let us look at what the different characters of this story did when it became apparent to them that God would become manifest as light, hope and love in a time ruled by uncertainty, angst and fear. Let us look at what epiphanies each group of them experienced upon the birth of the Christ Child.
We heard King Herod had called together all the chief’s priests and teachers of the law—it is written as if Herod had called these leaders to him in advance of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and asking the location of the king of the Jews. The Magi arrived, asked their question and Herod becomes disturbed. Then the reading goes on, giving us a memory of Herod—when he had met with the religious leaders and lawyers, they told him of the prophecy. Past tense. Which leaves the impression that the priests and scholars knew that God would be sending a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel. And they kept quiet about it. They did not share the prophecy. We know this because if they had shared what they knew, if they shared the information, Herod would not had to ask where the Messiah would be born and the people of Jerusalem would not have been disturbed when the Magi arrived in town, telling of a magnificent star that had risen in the east.
The priests, the leaders of the very people who were held under the thumb of the state, who lived their lives at the whim of cruel and unjust laws, regulations and taxes, the religious leaders of the people did not speak of what could give hope to the masses. They denied the prophecy. They gave no authority or credence to their very scriptures, telling them they were not alone and that God would never forget them. There’s no indication of why the priests and scholars of the law tried to ignore the prophecy, why they did not lift it up. Perhaps they were afraid of the consequences of speaking out.
But we all know that no matter how much we deny certain truths, eventually we must face the very reality we are trying to ignore. I like to think as I get older, I know better than to ignore what needs facing but I think instead of acknowledging that I’m denying something, my brain has become expert at assisting me in my denials. Just this week I had to face the hard, cold truth that no matter how I worked it, there was no way the blocks that I had made just before Christmas for a quilt I’m working on were going to line up with the blocks I made after Christmas. I had made a measurement error with the first set of blocks which I realized while I was sewing them. I assembled those first blocks knowing things were not correct while my brain whispered to me that it was a problem that future Vicki could figure out. I didn’t need to do a course correction, it would work out in the end. However when I went to add the newer blocks, to my dismay, they did not line up. I had tried to ignore the issue earlier on but math is math—math is ALWAYS math—and now I have a problem that I’m quite annoyed with past Vicki for denying there was a problem. The leaders of the Jewish people denied the authority of their scriptures and ignored the truth that was promised to them—that the Light of the World was sure to come.
Which brings us to Herod. You don’t really get a sense of how much he’s freaking out with the arrival of the Wise Men asking where the baby had been born but something was off because the Wise Men did not return to him after meeting the holy child, as he had instructed them to do. This suspicion is affirmed in the next set of readings in which Herod has a melt-down and orders all male children under the age of two to be killed. But in our reading today, it is enough to know the Wise Men do not trust Herod enough to return to him. The fear of the one who was to shepherd the people of Israel must of seeped out of him when he met with the Magi. And being as wise as they were, these men from the east surely understood how threatened Herod would have felt with the possibility of the prophecy of a king greater than he from long past coming true. 
Lately the news has been filled with people whose power has been threatened. I can’t help but think of the sweeping #MeToo movement which has had many influential men’s careers to end in disgrace after years and decades of mistreating women. We know, from reporting, that in their attempt to keep their power, the men did their best to extinguish the stories of the women they abused or mistreated. Just last month, it was revealed that the president of the United States worked with a rag magazine to have women’s stories bought and then silenced because the magazine then owned the rights to tell the story, which they never intended to publish. Herod heard the prophecy, he asked the Magi to give him the final detail he was missing and then what? We know. We know the story. Death and destruction. Because the Magi did not tell him specifically which child was the Messiah, he went with mass casualties. When the response to truth telling, to a light shining so that the truth can be known, when that light is a threat to power and control and the response to that light is to do everything possible to extinguish it, you must know there’s something pretty darn special about that Light.
The dark is not inherently a bad place to be but there is no doubt that our instinct is to look for light—any light whatever form it might take when we are uncomfortable, sad or feeling trapped.  Sometimes it’s literal light. When I was in Toronto for a conference in November I came down with the flu. I was alone in my hotel room feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I knew I needed to sleep but everything just felt so awful, I didn’t want to be alone in the dark of my hotel room. So, I turned the lamp onto its lowest setting and turned the TV onto CNN at a very low volume. It was the mid-term elections in the States. The glow of the lamp and the low voices of the TV together created the Light I needed to get through that one night of the worst illness I can ever remember having. The Light, though, can be so much more than a glow in the dark. When a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with a very serious condition a few years ago, it was just about Advent. Once word got out that he was going to have surgery that would require months of recovery, the men of the church choir that he sang with showed up at his home and hung the Christmas lights. Casseroles were prepared and frozen so his wife could tend to his needs. People drove him to and from appointments. Visits were timed so his wife could rest. His physical healing would take a lot of time, but his soul found healing in the love that was shown unconditionally to him. The Light he needed to surround him at his darkest hour was made manifest in the actions of his neighbours, his fellow church members, his colleagues and his family. 
Through the child Jesus, God entered the world—no longer a distant god but now a god of love being lived in and amongst humanity, in and amongst us. The baby grew and became known as the Light of the World. It is a light that God promises to us that will never go out. Jesus, the Light of the World, expressed love and taught lessons throughout his ministry which became known as The Way. When he was at the Sea of Galilee, he met people of all shapes and sizes, types and makes and he said to them, ‘Come and follow me.’ With his disciples in tow, he began walking town to town. To Nazareth, to Bethany, to Jerusalem, to Emmaus. To follow Jesus meant travelling. The priests tried to ignore the Light that was to come. Herod tried to extinguish the Light he knew had arrived. But those that met Jesus, those who met the Light of the World, those people began to follow him, they began to seek him out. And we seek him still today.
Epiphany is the revelation to the non-Jews that the Messiah has come. Epiphany for the priests meant that despite their attempts to ignore the Light that was to come, God sent it anyway. Epiphany for Herod was that despite his attempts to extinguish the Light, courage and love would prevail and the Light would not be put out. Epiphany for the Wise Men was the realization in their seeking, their journey was not finished when they arrived at the Christ Child’s side. They must continue along a path not previously known to them. Epiphany today is a reminder that Jesus came as the Light of the World and, despite humanity’s and our individual attempts to ignore it or, even at times, extinguish it, that light, that love will always overcome. That light will never falter. We are called by God, by Jesus to come and follow. To seek the light and, day by day, be the love that Christ showed us was possible. May it be so. Amen.