Sunday, March 17, 2019

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,[a]
your very great reward.[b]”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit[c] my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

It was called the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, or simply Black ‘47.

Outside Ireland it was known as the Irish Potato Famine, and it resulted in the greatest crisis the island ever faced. One million dead, one million leaving the island: a loss of a quarter of the population in a handful of years. Canada welcomed thousands, with 38,000 Irish passing though Toronto alone, then a town of just 30,000.

Of the 2,000 who remained in Toronto, and the many that would follow, life was was extremely hard. The vast majority were Roman Catholic, and this was the first mark against them. George Brown, founder of the Globe newspaper, gave voice to popular opinion. "Rome means tyranny,” he said, “and has for its mission the subversion of the civil and religious liberty.” But he wasn’t done, calling the Irish “a curse on the land,” suggesting they would soon "sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home."

It didn’t help that the Irish had few opportunities in their new city. Even into the next century, it was common to see signs in shop windows that said “No Dogs, No Irish.” This cycle of few jobs and continuing poverty was held against them too. Again, George Brown was the leading voice through his Globe: “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor,” read one particularly notorious column from the time. “They are lazy...and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”[1]

Tensions were often high, in a town ruled by the Orange Lodge. An estimated 22 riots or clashes occurred the early years, most often on St. Patrick’s Day or the 12th of July. In an eerie echo of recent events, in 1858 an Orangeman drove his carriage into a group of St. Patrick’s Day marchers, and in the melee that followed one Irish Catholic man was killed.

Over time, of course, tensions decreased. Economic fortunes changed, Cupid intervened (as one historian said) as intermarriage increased, and anti-immigrant focus shifted to the next waves that followed: Jews from Eastern Europe, former African-American slaves, and Chinese workers following the completion of the CPR. Nothing provides cover like hatred shifting to the next group of immigrants. In the 1950’s my father was called a “lousy DP” and invited to go back to where he came from—intolerance that continued until the next wave arrived, this time from the Caribbean.

I think you see where I’m going with all this. Migrants are international and intolerance is local. Racism is a learned response, often existing under the surface, and occasionally boiling over through unfolding events or a change in popular opinion. Sometimes anti-immigrant sentiment is bolstered by politicians and leaders who see opportunity in dividing people and blaming outsiders for domestic problems. Hate is unleashed, and people who are open to hatred feel encouraged to act.

The terrible attacks in Christchurch are part of an increasing pattern: attacking people during worship, literally invading the “sanctuary” of mosques, synagogues and churches. Three religions and one motive: to attack people during the most peaceful of activities and spread terror. Call it white supremacy, ethnic nationalism or just garden-variety racism—we all have a role in calling it out.

You might think it’s difficult to find a link to our reading, but if we scan the rest of chapter 15, we can find the connection. Partly we cut the last few verses as an act of mercy for lay readers, and partly because these verses have been used by extremists to push a dangerous agenda. Here are the verses:

18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

Obviously we don’t have the entire afternoon to do a survey of the conflict in the Middle East, but these four verses have been misused by advocates of a so-called Greater Israel to justify annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and for a crazy few, to expand the borders of Israel into neighbouring countries. And while these are considered fringe ideas in Israel, and widely discounted, they still provide some with permission to construct illegal settlements and ignore Palestinian aspirations.

And there is more. We read the narrative and the lists of nations that we struggle to pronounce and we imagine that these nations were displaced, and that somehow the land was empty when they entered it. As we learned in our study last week, this was far from the case. In fact, the scriptures themselves reveal (along with lots of archaeology) that the land continued to be inhabited, and that the Israelites lived side-by-side with these nations. Many Israelite laws began as Canaanite laws, borrowed because they already fit the context, and because borrowing a law is about as neighbourly as borrowing a cup of sugar.

So what we are left with is a couple of herders from Ur. Simple folk who trusted God enough to follow a promise—compelling, but a little vague all at the same time:

“Go from your country,” God said, “your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

But just three chapters later, the promise seems tenuous. The journey has continued, the couple are aging, and the constant wandering has taken its toll. When God appears to renew the promise, Abram is confused. “Lord, you say my reward will be great, but yet we remain childless. And my only heir—who I am sure is a fine fellow—is Eliezer of Damascus.” I added the fine fellow part, because Abram has no specific complaint about Eliezer—just that unfulfilled elephant-in-the-room promise.

And then God gives him something unexpected: God took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

They wavered for a moment, but they didn’t stop believing in God, in God’s goodness, and the goal of this long journey. God chose Abraham and Sarah for their righteousness, and the pilgrim spirit led then from Ur into a wilderness of the unknown. Like modern migrants, they took a chance knowing that the thing God wants for all people—security, prosperity, well-being—would be at the end of the journey. They were willing to take the risk, for themselves, and for generations to follow.

At the end of every tough week, we hold loved ones close, we ponder the values we treasure, and we recommit to a way-of-life that is open and welcoming. We recall that like the children of Abraham and Sarah, we too are descended from wanderers. We enjoy the reward and the responsibility that comes when the people before us took a big risk to find us a home. And for this we give thanks, in this place, Amen.



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