This is the text of my homily delivered at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Ottawa in celebration of Black History Month.
Bible readings for Epiphany 5, Year A – Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20
The four Bible readings this morning speak directly to the people of God. Themes of exclusion and injustice, righteousness and identity are interwoven and give us much to think about as we celebrate Black History Month.
In the Old Testament reading, the Israelites were exhorted by the prophet Isaiah to avoid the trap of familiar worship that becomes meaningless. God considers the Israelites’ rituals of fasting and prayer meaningless because the worshippers are unconcerned about the situation of persons whose daily life is different from theirs. They ignore the poor and those in need and they turn a blind eye to injustice.
Paul, in his epistle to the diverse, affluent Corinthian church, urges Christians to avoid the trap of preaching with high falutin wisdom, which not everyone can understand. He praises the simplicity and power of divine wisdom, which when used to proclaim the Good News, has the power to save and transform lives.
Isaiah, St. Paul and the Psalmist all speak about the blessings that God bestows on those who live righteously. Simply put, righteous living is being in a right relationship with God and with people, even those who are different from us.
It is ironic that familiar forms of worship and eloquent preaching can lead to the exclusion of some. At the core of Isaiah’s and Paul’s admonitions to God’s people, is the prevailing truth that righteous living must involve inclusivity.
Black History Month was established in 1926 with the aim of including the stories of people of Black African descent in history books.
Beginning in the late 15th century and ending in the 19th century, twelve million Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were enslaved. Even though the financial proceeds of trading in slaves lined the pockets of plantation owners and fuelled the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the economic contribution of slave-based labor and the slave trade to the world is still conspicuously absent from mainstream history books.
So here we are, nearly a century later, with valid reasons justifying the need to have Black History Month. Black History Month offers us the opportunity to step out of the ignorance of the history of Black people and accept the truths about their contribution to our world and our Church.
The systemic exclusion of the contribution, presence and truthful history of Black people has served to perpetuate negative perceptions of the Black race and has undermined the progress of Black people everywhere.
We still need Black History Month because the many inventions and accomplishments of persons of Black African descent have yet to be widely acknowledged and publicized beyond the four weeks in February every year.
Some of the many machines and devices we use daily were invented by Black people during the nineteenth century, a time when Black people were largely regarded as inferior and incapable of being educated. The air conditioning unit, the stove, typewriter, thermostat control, stethoscope, radiator, smallpox vaccine, the lawn mower, railway air brakes, the golf tee, cellular phones are just a few inventions that came from people of Black African descent.
Here in Canada, Elijah McCoy, “The real McCoy”, invented several devices to lubricate locomotive engines. Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female attorney in North America and first woman publisher in Canada. Charles Drew attended McGill University medical school where he graduated with honors. He pioneered blood transfusions and established the Red Cross Blood Bank.
The Church also needs Black History Month. Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible have generally failed to acknowledge the presence and role of Black people in Biblical history, in Jesus’ ministry and in the spreading of the Gospel. There is Moses’ wife Zipporah and the Queen of Sheba among several Old Testament personalities. There is Simon of Cyrene, the Black man who helped Jesus carry his cross. Mary Magdalene was in Jesus’ entourage. The Ethiopian eunuch, a man of great influence, accepted Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior and continued on his way back to Africa, where I am sure he spread the Good News.
There was a time when Anglican Church – clergy and lay people, upheld and perpetuated discriminatory beliefs about social status and ethno-centric superiority.
The Anglican planter class in the USA and in the colonies of the West Indies refused to have their slaves baptized as this would make Black people spiritually ‘equal’ to White people.
We know that the Anglican Church was part of the oppressive colonial government institutions and made no attempt prior to the early to mid-19th century to declare their abhorrence of slavery and racial discrimination.
In the 19th century, Black Anglicans in Canada were relegated to their own congregations and lay-readers were only permitted to read the Bible and lead prayers under restrictive conditions. A case in point is Joseph Leonard, a Black Anglican lay-reader in the Brindley Town settlement in Nova Scotia, who inspired by God, went way beyond those restrictive conditions and was flatly refused permission by Bishop Inglis to be ordained a minister.
It is the persistence of evangelical missionaries – the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, as well as the persistence of Black Christians – that shook the conscience of the “established” Anglican Church in the early to mid-19th century. This led to a reversal in the Anglican Church’s position on slavery. It was only in 2006 that the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a formal, unequivocal apology for the role that the Anglican Church played in the slave trade and slavery.
Today, Anglican Churches in the Caribbean integrate local, afro-centric cultural elements in the liturgy. Many educational institutions under the aegis of the Anglican Church graduate scholars who continue to make a sterling contribution to their communities throughout the world. In the Anglican Church in Canada, people of Black African descent comprise a significant percentage of many congregations. They play an active role in the life of the Church and in advancing its work at home and abroad.
Black History Month is a valiant effort to highlight the on-going need for the inclusion of the missing pages in the world’s history books and seeks to remind us that Black history is an integral component of all our histories.
We can and should celebrate diversity and honor the identities of all the peoples of the world. But more importantly, we must truly understand and accept that all human beings, can have a place in the Kingdom of God. This is because, all of us are created equally, loved particularly and offered redemption freely by God, through Jesus Christ.
Our common Christian identity
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus defines our identity as His followers. Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Salt changes. Light reveals.
What are Christians being called to change?
The prophet Isaiah’s message to the people of Israel is relevant in today’s world. We are to step out of our comfort zones of the way of life of the 90% of Canadians who don’t live in poverty. As the salt of the earth, we are not just another social service helping to meet the material needs of the other 10%. We are called to work and to worship, feeding and clothing the souls and bodies of anyone in need, and always remembering that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the Kingdom of God.
What are Christians being called to reveal?
As the light of the world, we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal God working through us on how to live in ways that proclaim the Good News in word and in deed, influencing and impacting the lives of those to whom God leads us to minister.
Jesus also makes it clear that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill the law. Love is the guiding principle of the law that God gave to Moses.
Justice and righteousness flow from love, which is at the core of Jesus’ exhortation for us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
In honouring the contribution of persons of Black African heritage to the church and to the world, let us celebrate our common identity, which is God’s love.
I would like to share a poem written by Langston Hughes:
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
I would like to say how very impressed I am with the mission and ministry of this parish. St. Stephen’s is a church without walls, where I feel the love and the see the diversity of those who worship here! Keep sprinkling the salt! Continue to shine even brighter!
I love you…
May God bless you all!