"You have heard that it was said" – Sermon from Ecumenical Service, December 1 at 7 pm

This evening’s scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

Believing that change is possible, when you are oppressed, marginalized, beaten-down, considered lesser-than, told you’re not good enough…your entire life takes faith, the kind of faith it takes to hope in the face of the unbelievable. 

The singer and activist Sam Cooke knew this kind of hope and he wrote and sang about in A Change is Gonna Come in 1964. Sam was at the peak of his career when he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel when they were touring in Louisiana, thus inspiring this song. Released during the Civil Rights movement in America, this song spoke to the HOPE of all African Americans that the way they were being treated wouldn’t always be like it was. 

Often, when we are people whose ancestors formed the governments and societies, we live in we can’t understand what it is like to be “the other”. What it is really like for other people who were not considered equal when the laws and constitutions were formed. Governments and societies are always shaped by those who have the power. Even our histories are power-sided. On my way to church Sunday morning I heard a piece on CBC that quoted a Canadian archivist as saying that ours is a history of shame – our histories are whitewashed and nearly always favour people in power as “the good guys”. 

When governments are formed with the understanding that Black people are no better than slaves, Indigenous people are not as civilized as the people who colonized the land, women are less than men, and people who identify as LGBTQ2S+ are sick or confused, then these systems are xenophobic by design, that is; they are systems that rely on the idea that someone is naturally strong and entitled, and others naturally weak and reliant. We might not call ourselves racists, but how can we not when we continue to benefit from systems that have been racist since their inception and yet, do nothing to change it? 

You have heard that it was said, “that’s just the way it is.” And what do folks say if anyone decides to fight against a system that has been unjust to them? “Why can’t THEY just get along? Why can’t THEY just suck it up, get over it, learn to speak English, get a job, know THEIR place…” and so much more, and so much worse. You’ve heard it, maybe you’ve even said it. 

Let’s take a look at the events of this past week before we touch on the words of Jesus that Rev. Beth Mattinson shared with us from 2000 years ago. The comments I heard in the news and read online in the last couple of days concerning the Halifax Police Chief apologizing for street checks and historical mistreatment of Black Nova Scotians were disturbing to say the least. Many people can’t seem to understand what the big deal was about street checks. Many still believe that “if you’re doing nothing wrong, why would it bother you to show your identification to the cops, what’s the big deal?” I’m ashamed to say that I too was guilty of being this ignorant before I learned the truth about how people of colour are treated in this province. Street checks are just one symptom of the disease of systematic racism. 

So, what is the big deal? The big deal is that if you are Black in Nova Scotia you were SIX times more likely than a white person to be stopped by the police and questioned about what you were doing and having your personal information being stored in a database as a record of being “checked out” by the police. That’s a big deal. 

So, let me ask you: How many of you have been stopped by the police for no apparent reason? How many of you have been followed by a store clerk around a store – and not because they were trying to help you? How many of you have been called names that had something to do with the colour of your skin or where you were born? How many of you regularly have people say to you, “so, where are you from” and if you say somewhere in Canada, they say, “no, like really from”? These are just a few of the things that people of colour in our province experience every day – yes, every day. See? – this really is a big deal. 

When a former Nova Scotia judge found street checks to be illegal this October they were finally banned in province. That finding came after years of protest, documented research, and public education by the African Nova Scotian community who went largely unheard.  Sure, the ban and apology are the beginning of change, but that’s all they are, the beginning… apologies without changed attitudes and action are just empty words. Change has to start somewhere. 

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus were living under an oppressive regime and would have likely related to Black Nova Scotians who suffer at the hands of the police in Nova Scotia – police who were “just doing their jobs”. Remember, the job of the police is to do the work of a system that is racist by design. Roman soldiers were the police force of their day and the Jews were at their mercy. For example, you have heard that it was said that it was a regular, legal practice for them to demand that a Jewish person carry their packs for a mile – Jesus said, yes do this, but hen carry it one more mile our of kindness… This was a radical protest. 

When Jesus came the people didn’t recognize him right away as the one sent to save them and flip the world as they knew it upside down. He didn’t come as a wealthy king or a mighty warrior like they expected. No, he came as an educator, an activist, a man faithful to his God, and compassionate to all people. He taught in a way that the people had never heard before : “Love your enemy?” Who was this guy? 

But Jesus taught us to really see each other as a neighbour – to look at one another as God looks at all of us – with love. Not romantic love, or fluffy love, but the love that is intentional and hard sometimes. Jesus taught us how to fight injustice with nonviolence. People like Sam Cooke, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sister Mama Ruby Sales in America and Viola Desmond and Rocky Jones here in Nova Scotia, and so many others in the fight for Civil Rights for all people didn’t just preach nonviolence. They practiced what Christ taught. When Jesus taught to turn the other cheek, he did not say “roll over and let them kick you when they are down.” No, he advised to stand strong in the face of injustice, and not to fight violence with violence, but with kindness and compassion. Real compassion, not apathy, or pretending that everything is just fine.

You have heard that it was said, “I’m not racist, I don’t see colour”, but I’m here tonight to say that if we don’t see colour we do not see people of colour. If we do not see people of colour, we will only notice them when they scream for the kind of justice that we that we don’t see because it doesn’t affect us. When we don’t see colour, we can’t see each other’s pain. When we don’t see colour, we can’t celebrate diversity. How can we be neighbours, let alone friends with people we can’t even see? 

Quentrel Provo is a modern fighter for justice, an anti-violence activist, and a follower of Jesus who lives here in Nova Scotia. At the Halifax Police Chief’s apology this week he shook the chief’s hand when he was brought up on stage to offer the closing prayer. He received a backlash from many in the African Nova Scotian community for that photographed moment because people are hurt and angry and not ready to accept any apologies until they see real change. He responded like this, “I DID NOT accept an apology on behalf of African Nova Scotians today. I’m one person I can’t speak for ALL African Nova Scotians, I can only speak for myself and my feelings! I was asked to do the closing prayer, which after careful thinking, I decided to do, to pray for hope, change and action going forward,” he continues, “I’m STILL processing the apology, because when you’ve been a victim of racial profiling for years, it’s something that words just can’t take away the feeling… It’s a process that’s going to take a while but today was a start. 

The BEST apology is changed behavior and action going forward… That’s what I want to see and we need to hold them accountable. Let’s continue to stand up against injustice, inequality, systemic racism and discrimination. I support all those fighting for a good cause. Today was a historic moment that won’t take away the pain of decades but it’s a start, let’s see where it goes from here” (from Facebook).

Jesus said, “you have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’” and then calls us to go further – to not just love your neighbour, but also “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Mr. Provo did just that, he prayed for the police. He prayed for all of us. And, he prayed in hope that a change is gonna come. 

Change is coming. For all of us who believe that the Kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven is coming once again in Jesus Christ, we must also believe that change really is coming… It might be slow, but its coming! The world IS changing and apologizing is one way to get it started, but apologies without actions are just empty words. A CBC reporter this week spoke to a Youth Activist in Halifax named DeRico Symonds who was present for the apology and he said, 

This isn’t just a Halifax thing. Racism, systemic discrimination, need to be everyone’s issues, and my hope – and our hope – is that this does create leadership across Canada to have a look at what’s happening here.” 

It is my fervent prayer that change is gonna come and that it keeps coming. The work of justice is not finished until all people everywhere are treated equally. All of us have a role to play to end violence and injustice in this world. It starts with asking the Spirit to help us change our hearts and minds to how we see our neighbours. We are called to love as God loves, this is not an easy love, but it is a love that has the power to heal the whole world. One prayer, one handshake, one apology, one act-of-forgiveness at a time. 

Let us learn from our neighbours who believe that change is possible, despite being oppressed, marginalized, beaten-down, considered lesser-than, told they’re not good enough… let us all leave this place with the kind of faith that it takes to hope in the face of the unbelievable. Let us love our neighbour by no longer seeing them as the other, but as our friends. Let us change from sitting back and letting them fight THEIR fight. And, let us stand behind them speaking truth to power with our voices and our actions. Jesus did that, so should we. May it be so. Amen. 

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