The following was preached at Grace Mennonite on September 14, 2014, based on Genesis 12:1-4.
It was kind of a bizzare summer for me.
On the one hand, I had a blast.
26 of us Gracers went to Pauingassi for our fourth family camp.
My ultimate team had our best summer yet, finishing with a record of 14-4. Ash and I coach the high school ultimate team out of Grunthal, and we finished 11th in the province, which is quite amazing since we’re from Grunthal.
My family went fishing way way up North to Ashley’s family’s fly in cabin. We were catching a pickerel every 0 to 15 seconds, and we managed to come across a dead moose floating in the water. And yes, a quick chainsaw later, I took the antlers home with me.
My family also went rock climbing and canoeing. We swam in our kiddie pool and went to the splash park. We barbequed and deep fried and went to the beach and slept in our tent.
Looking back, I don’t really know how we managed to do that all, considering my kids are 1 and 3 years old, but we did. It was a lot of work, but it was awesome.
And then, on the other hand, when I tuned into what was going on in the world, I was often left speechless.
The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The violence committed by ISIS in Iraq is some of the worst we’ve recently seen.
Violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza strip, where we ended up talking about the number of children killed.
We read about the death of an unarmed African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and then the pictures of the protests and the police. It looked like a war zone.
And then recently, here in Winnipeg, police found Tina Fontaine, a 15 year old aboriginal girl murdered and dumped into the river.
It’s often overwhelming, isn’t it? We don’t know what to do. My response is often to turn off the news and go play with my kids. These scenarios are huge, they’re complicated, there are centuries of history behind them, and there are no easy answers. And the worst part is that if I looked back to the summer of 2013, I probably could have made a similar list. And next year, I will probably be able to add to the list.
These stories of violence and evil occur over and over and over again, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium. Over and over and over again.
Genesis 4:8 – Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 4:23 – Lamech says: I have a killed young man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.
Genesis 6:5 – The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
Genesis 6:11 – Now the Earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.
And this is just the first six chapters of Genesis!
Over, and over, and over again, we return to this narrative of evil, of violence, of oppression, of doing harm to your neighbour. These huge, complicated, narratives that are centuries old.
I can’t tackle all of them this morning, both the Genesis stories or the ones in past few months, although I wish I could. But we can look at one of God’s response in the book of Genesis.
And God’s response in this text of Abraham and Sarah is simple: Try again. Try again with some new people. Try again.
God started with Adam and Eve, and that didn’t work out as God had hoped. Then God tried starting again with Noah, and that didn’t work out as God had hoped. So what does God do? Try again with Abraham and Sarah.
Because to understand how God works in the Old Testament, to understand how God works in our world, we need to understand that God always works through humankind. Through kings and peasants and our seniors and our children and through people with lots of money and with people who don’t have lots of money, God is always working through us. God partners with us, and is always inviting us to let the reign of God rule in our hearts and in our lives.
This is the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.
“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.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you”
This story starts off with something we all want – God on our side. And then it moves into familiar territory – God against our enemies. This is an ancient narrative that everyone would have known, and still knows. God is on our side, and not their side.
But then, our familiar narrative is turned on its head. Everyone will be blessed through you. There is something different about this God of Abraham. I will make your name great, you will be a blessing, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. God’s blessing, God’s favour, is for everyone.
This blessing, this sending, this invitation goes beyond the tribalism of Abraham’s world, it goes beyond “looking out for me and my own”, it goes beyond only caring for people from one country or one faith or the one football team. It’s about everybody.
It’s about God choosing to work with people to bless the world.
Which brings us back to this summer, and much of violence and protests that filled our news feeds up. How does God work with people to bless the world when it’s so messy and violent?
I saw a cartoon from www.reknew.org that best explains some of what’s going on in the world.
You can also make the big fish say “There is no oppression,” the medium fish say “There is some oppression,” and the little fish say “There is lots of oppression.” And when we start to look at the world through this lens, I think that things start to look a little bit different.
Any time there’s violence, a conflict, a protest, an uproar, we need to ask some questions. We need to ask, “What the uproar is about?” “Who’s doing the yelling?” “Why are they yelling?” And we need to ask, “What kind of fish are they?” “Are they the big fish, or the little fish?” Because these questions matter.
Let’s look at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed African American teenager was shot by a white police officer. The African America community took to the streets, the cops reacted, and this was the result:
Now, ask yourself, Who’s the big fish in this story? Who’s the little fish? And what is each fish saying?
One reporter in Missouri drove 15 minutes from Ferguson and asked white people at a restaurant what they thought about the protests. These were their words:
“It’s BS. They don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” “It’s just a lot of misplaced anger.” “The protesters like seeing themselves on TV.” “It’s just a small group of people making trouble.” “The kid wasn’t really innocent.” “People are just taking the opportunity to satisfy their desire for junk.” “Basically, they hate whites. It’s reverse prejudice.” Whoa.
Now listen to a different voice, one from the little fish. Austin Channing is a Racial Reconciliation worker in Chicago, and she says this: “I am convinced that the soul of the white church has yet to be ashamed. It is not ashamed of slavery- it only dismisses it. It is not ashamed of Jim Crow- it only claims credit for ending it. It is not ashamed of incarceration rates- it only excuses it. It is not ashamed of ghettos- it pretends to have nothing to do with them. It is not ashamed of segregation- only silently benefits from it.”
Or, as the the great civil rights leader Ella Baker said years ago, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
Same conflict. Different fish. Different stories.
Let’s look at another story, one that’s a lot closer to home.
This summer, the police in Winnipeg found Tina Fontaine, a 15 year old aboriginal woman, in a plastic bag floating in the river.
She now joins the almost 1200 murdered or missing aboriginal woman in Canada since 1980. Aboriginal women make up just 4% of our population but make up 16% of all female homicides and 11% of missing women. These numbers show that something is seriously wrong in Canada.
Who’s the big fish in this story? And who’s the little fish? And what is each fish saying?
Well, let’s start with the biggest fish of all. Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.” Well, half of what he said was right. It is a crime. But the answer isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and. Maybe we should also try to figure out why we indigenous women have such a high homicide rate?
Compare his response to that of Devon Clunis, the Winnipeg police chief: “There has been a long, historic marginalization, and many of the issues we’re facing in our community today are because of that. If anyone’s not willing to stand up and say that, and face that, and say the only way we’re going to rectify those issues is first by rectifying the cause… we’re never going to rectify what we’re seeing.”
Or, as some aboriginal women started posting of themselves on the internet with the words: Am I next? Are we next? #MMIW
I understand that I’m just scratching the surface of conflicts and narratives that are centuries old. I get that. But when listen to what some of the voices are saying, we see a remarkable difference.
You by all means can criticize me for being slanted or biased or only picking up the extreme voices and not listening to the moderates. You’re probably right. Because I have. But that’s also the point, because generally, the people who are the big fish, the ones who think the world is just, who think there isn’t oppression, think that the little fish are making a big deal out of nothing, and they don’t want to hear the voices of the little fish. And then the louder the little fish shout, the more the big fish does to ignore them, vilify them, degrade them, and make excuses. I think that being a big fish, being a center of power, blinds one to the voices and perspectives of the little fish, those who find themselves marginalized.
You by all means can also criticize me for making the “bad guy” the big fish, and the “good guys” the little fish. And you’re right, because I have. And I determined who was the little fish and was the big fish by asking a simple question:
Who’s dying sooner than they should?
Who’s dying at a greater rate than the average population?
Whose children are being killed?
And here we are, back to the story of violence that has been told for thousands of years since Genesis. Over, and over, and over again, we return to this narrative of evil, of violence, of oppression, of doing harm to your neighbour. These huge, complicated, narratives that are centuries old.
Where is God in all this? What is God doing in our world?
Well, I think that God is in the business of working with humanity, no matter how messed up the world is, or how messed up we are.
I think that God is in the business of blessing the world, all the world, and invites us to be a part of it.
And this story of God blessing people to bless the world repeats continually over and over in us.
Overwhelming at times? Yeah. And humbling. And hard.
And where do we start?
I think we start with ourselves, and acknowledge that we have the ability to do evil, that we are part of these stories, and that we ask God for help and healing, because I really believe that to the degree that we are transformed as followers of Jesus, the world around us is transformed.
And I think that we need to remember to ask ourselves “Whose voices are we listening to?” “Are we listening to all the voices?” “Does everyone have a voice at the table?”
And I think that we need to intentionally participate in a community where we not only listen to other voices, but also seek to pray for and love all the voices.
I think we need to participate in a community that offers an alternative narrative to the violence and racism and marginalization in our world.
I think we need to participate in a community that believes God’s blessing isn’t meant only for a select few, but for everyone.
I think we need to participate in a community that shows the world that maybe, we can listen to many voices and seek the common good of all.
I think we need to participate in a community where we can live in the hope and the dream that another world is possible.