The article below is the text of a sermon presented at Grace Church, Sutton, Québec, Canada on 27 February 2022.
The readings for this article are Exodus 34: 29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3: 12- 4:2 and Luke 9: 2-36
Lifting the veil
Our Bible readings present clear messages about the lifting of the veil of laws and legalism under the old covenant, making it possible for a new covenant that is based on God’s love and our direct relationship with Him.
We see in the reading from Exodus, that Moses’ face shone because he was talking with God. But Moses had to put a veil over his face when he was reading the law of the old covenant in front of the people of Israel. This is because the people of Israel at that time were not in a direct relationship with God. Their prayers for provision and forgiveness were offered by a high priest. The keeping of laws guided their behaviour, which was always a point of contention between the Jews and Jesus.
In our New Testament reading, Paul explains the significance of the lifting of the veil to the Corinthian Christians, who, like us, are under the new covenant through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul states: When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
The transfiguration described in Luke’s gospel, connects both readings in Exodus and Corinthians. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus is highly significant. Moses was equated with the Old Testament law given by God. Elijah was a great prophet who did not experience physical death but was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, bearing witness to the promise of eternal life after death to those who follow the law.
The appearance and then disappearance of Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration demonstrated that Jesus came to establish a new covenant that replaces the law. Under the new covenant, the law is made null and void, and more importantly, God, through Jesus Christ invites us all to be in relationship with him that is based on love. That loving relationship with God through Christ has two dimensions – our personal relationship with God, and our relationship with other people that is based on our love for God.
Black History Month
So why would a predominantly White congregation in rural Québec need to listen to a sermon on Black History Month when we are celebrating the Transfiguration of Jesus?
Before I make the connection between the Transfiguration of Jesus and Black History Month, I will take some time to highlight how and why the history of Black people is relevant to us as Christians, as Canadians and as Townshippers.
Black History Month was established in 1926 as a valiant effort to tell the story of people of Black African slave descent in North America and the Caribbean. The story of survival and the outstanding contribution of Black people to all sectors of life is conspicuously absent from mainstream history books, both worldwide and in Canada. Until that changes, we will need to have Black History Month.
It is important for all of us to understand how our shared history and our daily lives have been impacted by the history and contributions of Black Canadians both nationally, and right here in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
Black people in the Bible
The Church 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 who are people of colour. There is Simon of Cyrene, the Black man who helped Jesus carry his cross. Mary Magdalene, a woman of colour, 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.
Black people in North American History
In Canadian history books, we must acknowledge the contribution of Mathieu DaCosta, an interpreter of African descent who traveled throughout the Atlantic World in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. He likely spoke several languages including ‘pidgin Basque,’ a common trade language in the era of early contact between First Nations people and Europeans.
Slavery in Canada
Contrary to popular belief, slavery did exist in Canada. In 1628, Olivier Le Jeune is the first known slave in Canada and from 1628-1759, Black slaves were brought to ‘New France’ from British colonies in the Caribbean and later from the USA with White Loyalists. Slaves served as domestic servants, farm hands, and skilled artisans working hard under very difficult conditions.
Here in the Eastern Townships, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, in 1784 several Loyalist families brought Black slaves with them when they settled near Saint-Armand. Philip Luke, a Loyalist officer who also settled in the area operating a general store, is documented as arriving with slaves he inherited from his mother.
In 1950, a farmer who bought the former Luke homestead was plowing a road through his land. As his bulldozer pushed away the earth, human remains came to the surface. Experts believe at least some of the men and women buried in Saint-Armand died as they lived, in slavery, having worked on the land in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The place where the farmer found the human remains is known today as the Rock that starts with an “N”. And if you know what the N-word stands for, please don’t ever say it. Since 2016, the Rock was renamed ‘Rocher du repos des Noirs’ by La Commission de toponomie du Québec.
In 1793 Upper Canada became the first territory in the British Empire to legislate the gradual abolition of slavery. That same year, the US Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law. Many Black slaves in the US – known collectively as the ‘Black fugitives’ – fled to Canada, via the Underground Railroad, an extensive network of people, places, and modes of transportation, working in the deepest secrecy to help transport slaves to freedom in the North and Canada. Harriet Ross Tubman escaped slavery and returned repeatedly to the US and guided more than 200 men, women and children, including her aging parents, to freedom in Canada. Interestingly, Eastern Townships of St-Armand and Philipsburg served as stations, gathering places, in the Underground Railroad. It’s no small wonder that we sing our national anthem lustily proclaiming that Canada is the “True North strong and free!”
Without slavery and the slave trade, there would have been no Industrial Revolution from which many of your British and European ancestors benefitted. Twelve million Africans were transported against their will to the Americas and the Caribbean where they were enslaved for more than three centuries. The financial proceeds of trading in African slaves lined the pockets of plantation owners in North America and the Caribbean, including the Anglican Church, and fueled the Industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some of the many machines and devices we use daily were invented by Black people. The air conditioning unit, the stove, typewriter, thermostat control, stethoscope, radiator, smallpox vaccine, the lawn mower, railway air brakes, the golf tee, the cell phone, space travel safety and the ways to process and store blood plasma are just a few inventions and achievements that came from people of Black African descent.
Canada’s participation in World Wars 1 and 2 is widely celebrated, as it should. Let us not forget that Black people demonstrated their loyalty to Great Britain and Canada in every war since the American Revolution. Their requests for participation in World War 1 was initially rejected, but in 1916 they were admitted to the segregated Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion (Coloured). There was no separate unit in World War 2, but there remained restrictions on Black participation in the air force and navy until 1943 and 1944, respectively.
In the early to mid 20th century, the Eastern Townships welcomed Black performers during the Jazz craze era. Blackface minstrel performances were commonplace in country fairs and in places of entertainment. Black athletes competed in seasonal events in the township of Sherbrooke.
Understanding our common heritage
From these examples, we understand that our heritage as Canadians and residents in the Eastern Townships is inextricably linked to the history of persons of Black African descent. The Townships have benefited from the economic contribution of Black slaves. Persons of Black African slave descent have contributed to many of the things we take for granted, such as the scientific discoveries and gadgets that make our daily lives easier, and the post-war freedoms we enjoy.
Jesus’ transfiguration and Black History Month
There is much that Jesus’ transfiguration has to teach us that is relevant to Black History Month.
God’s law given to Moses, and in fact any law, religious or secular, makes us aware of what is right and what is wrong. The law is given to protect the weak and to establish justice for all of us. That is the spirit and intention of the law.
Law, justice, and love
A large part of the history of Black people in North America and the Caribbean is rooted in the struggle for civil rights, and the creation of laws intended to protect all of us by enforcing a common standard of justice. Through their own struggle against injustice and their insistence upon equality under the law, Black Canadians have bequeathed an impressive structure of constitutional rights from which all Canadians regardless of race, benefit today.
Some of these laws include
- Fair Practices and Human Rights legislatin in the 1950s and 1960s
- The Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)
- The Employment Equity Act (1986)
- The Multiculturalism Act (1988)
Despite the enactment of anti-discriminatory laws, we continue to hear reports of injustice, racial profiling, systemic racism, and police brutality against visible minorities. We must ask ourselves why?
I believe that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, it is possible for people to conform to the specific requirements of the law while wearing the veils of political correctness, racial tolerance, insensitivity and indifference to the experience and perspectives of other people.
Secondly, love cannot be legislated. Genuine love cannot be enforced by the law. Love comes from the heart and motivates right actions that go beyond the limits and requirements of the law.
Throughout His life, Jesus based every teaching on the guiding principle of love, for God and for people. The best definition of love is that love always leads us to act in ways that are for the highest good, for ourselves and for other people. There is no law against love. Love does much more than any law can do.
The transfiguration is the literal depiction of how love, personified in Jesus, rises above the limitations of the law, and removes the veil of political correctness, racial tolerance, indifference, race, religion, gender, and all the other things that influence the way we view and treat ‘other’ people. That, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is the connection between Jesus’ transfiguration and the stories we tell during Black History Month.
Our ability to love people, regardless of their difference, comes from God. In his epistle to the Christians in Rome, Paul declares that “God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” Love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We are channels of God’s love.
As children of God, love is our common identity and our common heritage. In Jesus’ own words, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The quest for justice and righteousness must flow from our love for one another in our own groups and for others in groups that have had different histories and experiences from us. It is through storytelling from the Bible and from events such as Black History Month that we understand that we’re all in the same boat, even though we came here in different ships.
As we are celebrating Black History Month, I have focused my thoughts today on the experience of persons of Black African slave descent and origin. I do realize that there are other groups, such as the First Nations people on whose unceded territory we live and work, who have been victimized by racism, injustice and other forms of discrimination.
We must all work together to build our understanding of each others’ histories and the different ways in which our collective history has shaped our experiences. This is how we see the need for justice and reconciliation. By listening and learning together, we release judgement of others and begin to dismantle our fears, stereotypes and biases – whether conscious or unconscious. Together, we see the need to value the common good above the need to hold on to the veil of fear. This takes time. Let us work consistently and patiently, guided by the hand of “the Ruler who delights in justice” as we co-create with Him, a better world transformed by love.
I encourage you sisters and brothers in this Regional Ministry, to be a people known for your love for one another and as advocates of justice for all people.
A few ways to do this –
- Participate in storytelling
Firstly, participate in storytelling. The Eastern Township Resource Center currently has an online exhibition that tells many stories of Black people here, their history, their contribution to the culture, sports and the economy in this region of Québec. The Resource Center is encouraging persons with oral history stories to tell, artifacts or any other information, to come forward and contribute to the work currently being done to write a more complete history of Black people in the Townships.
Secondly, advocate for a heritage site to be created in St-Armand as a mark of respect that memorializes Black slaves – those who defended their God-given right to freedom as they fled through the Underground Railway and to those who lived and died in servitude in the Eastern Townships.
- Participate in the Anti-Black Racism Task Force in the Diocese of Montreal
Thirdly, participate actively in the on-going work of the Anti-Black Racism Task Force in the Diocese of Montreal. The task force is providing training and awareness-building programs for clergy and lay persons, with the intention of helping all of us understand how the Church and our fellow Christians have been affected by systemic racism and how we can become more faithful and effective disciples of Christ.
May love lead us to lift the veil of all the things that separate us so that together, we can rejoice in our shared heritage.
Thank you and may God bless us all.
Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s why glory matters.