Southern Sudan and independence

Sudan continues to be plagued with tragedy, and forgotten by the Western world. Recently I came across this news article from Ecumenical News International concerning former general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia. In the article he does not appear to support the movement of Southern Sudan towards independence, which I think is likely the best option for them, as the world seems to care less about their plight, and the oppressive Northern-based Sudan regime continues its persecution of Christians in the South. It looks like the proposed referendum is facing obstacles. It would be the most desired method of attaining independence, if it is not manipulated or rigged. However, if it fails, then the political leaders seem determined to declare independence without a referendum. The latter may not be the best option, however it may be the only viable option in the face of all the others. You can read the whole article here.

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Sermon 12 Pentecost Yr C

12 Pentecost Yr C, 15/08/2010

Isa 5:1-7

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Isaiah’s song of the vineyard”

Some years ago, a high school young people’s group in [a] church held a fundraising dinner. It was billed as a “Hunger Feast.” Tickets were $5.00 each and the proceeds were to go toward the fight against world hunger. (It was 1976, so figure $5.00!) As the sixty or seventy people arrived for the dinner they were assigned seats at tables according to the color of the tickets the guests brought. The “blue” table, seating five people was served first. They received a piece of chicken, a cup of rice, peas and a cup of tea. (There was some grumbling about the menu.)                                                                                                                 

   These people were the “lucky” ones! Those remaining were in for a shock. The next two tables of about 8 people each received a half cup of rice, a tablespoon of peas and a half cup of tea. Nevertheless, they were still counted among the “lucky ones!” (You can see where this is going – right?) The next entree was a teaspoon of rice, no peas and a cup of water. Finally, at the last table, some received a quarter cup of water and the remaining “guests” received nothing. Several young people spoke about world hunger and how the evening’s “Hunger Feast” represented the various degrees of hunger and poverty in the world. 

   I can tell you the majority of the people were not happy campers! A few got the point and supported the young people and their “Feast”. One couple was very touched and contributed $100.00 to the project. Another couple left the “Feast” and the church. The Church Council was tied up for three months discussing the ethics and method of the project. The Youth Group was commended for its enthusiasm and intent, but cautioned that “the end does not justify the means.” The youth director was called on the carpet and told by the council president, “It just wasn’t right that some people didn’t get anything to eat!” (He got water!) The youth director’s response was, “I agree sir. And it also is not right that thousands of children will face tomorrow and the rest of their tomorrows until they die without anything to eat!”1

   Like the unpleasant surprise in this story, which underscores the lack of justice in the world; the first lesson from Isaiah today also communicates an unpleasant surprise. The prophet Isaiah begins by singing a love-song concerning his beloved’s—i.e. God’s—vineyard. Now everyone appreciates a love-song, don’t they? I know I do. What about you? Well, I think Isaiah gained the attention of his listening audience when he began to sing his love-song. The people who listened to Isaiah’s song likely expected to hear of a ballad with a happy ending. However, they were in for a big surprise!

   Isaiah sings of how God, his beloved did everything possible to set up a healthy, thriving vineyard. The soil was fertile and cultivated; the stones were removed; only the finest quality vines were planted; a watchtower was built in the middle of the vineyard; and a wine vat was built in preparation for the harvesting and processing of the grapes. So far, so good. The love-song is most pleasant to the ears, and listeners’ heartstrings are touched by the nurturing care of the beloved. What a wonderful love-song this prophet Isaiah is serenading us with.

   But wait, before you fall asleep with these tender words; listen to what follows. Surprise, surprise! Isaiah’s love-song is transformed into song of hard-hitting judgement and lament. Maybe we can gain the sense of such an unpleasant surprise by thinking of the love-song as a gentle, bedtime lullaby which is transformed into a condemning, raunchy, deafening heavy-metal rock-and-roll song.

   In any case, the irony of the song comes to the forefront when Isaiah, speaking for God, asks the people of Jerusalem and Judah to “judge between me—i.e. God—and my vineyard—i.e. the people of Jerusalem and Judah.” In an agonising song of judgement and lament, God tells his people that there was nothing more he could do to guarantee the success of his vineyard. He had done everything that he could do. Implied here in the song is the human freedom that God gives us. In the song, God the beloved expects the best from his people: “he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” So, the consequences of freedom being misused or abused is that a well cared for vineyard becomes neglected and turns into a dried-out wasteland of briers and thorns.

   The concluding verse of the song makes it abundantly clear that the vineyard represents God’s chosen people. God expected and hoped that his people would ensure that there was justice for everyone in the nation. Instead of justice, the wealthy class of politicians and business people were killing society’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Blood was on the hands of the rich and powerful members of society, since their wealth was gained by cheating and robbing society’s poorest class. God expected and hoped for righteousness from his people. Instead he heard a cry from the poor and oppressed. God expected his people to look after the poor and oppressed; after all, those who were now blessed with wealth and the good life—had they and their ancestors not cried out to the LORD when they were poor and oppressed as slaves in Egypt? Had God not heard their cries and delivered them from their Egyptian slavery? Why now had they abused their freedom and become selfish and greedy? They, with their blood-money and ill-gotten riches were no better than their enemy oppressors—the Egyptians.

   In our day and age, has anything really changed? We hear stories of injustice and ill-gotten gain today too? Our planet is moaning and groaning due to the selfishness and greed of a minority of the world’s population. The story that we began with of the youth group’s Hunger Feast is a parable of what actually is happening with the unequal distribution of the world’s resources today. Two thirds of the world’s population is deprived of even what we would call the basic necessities of life. Do we hear their cries of suffering? Closer to home, many Canadians have been hit hard by the downturn in the economy—while we pay healthcare CEOs astronomical salaries and benefits.

   A pressing question facing us today is this: Are we really a caring society? In answering the question, I do not think it is helpful to employ labels, namely, socialism versus free enterprise. In a caring society it is the social contract that guarantees a right to adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and health care, and a system that provides these equal services to all without any feeling of guilt on the part of the recipients.

   To quote a contemporary Isaiah, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can we not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person—a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King, Jr.—one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.2

   As members of Christ the Vine, we are his branches. May his gifts of grace mobilize us to bear fruit by caring for the lost, the least and the last among us and in every land. Amen.     

1 Cited from: John Jewell, “Love Songs,” Sunday, August 16, 1998 at: <http://www.lectionarysermons.com/a1698.html&gt;.

2 Cited from: Elie Wiesel, From The Kingdom Of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Summit Books, 1990), pp. 233-235.

Sermon 11 Pentecost Yr C

11 Pentecost Yr C, 8/08/2010

Isa 1:1, 10-20

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Prophetic words of indictment and hope”

The African Lion Safari is a wildlife park near Hamilton, Ontario. Lions, tigers, giraffes, baboons and monkeys are all allowed to roam freely within their own fenced in sections of the park. Visitors to the park drive along trails throughout the various wildlife sections either in their own vehicles or in the Safari buses. Posted at the entrance to the Safari is a notice that warns visitors about the danger of driving their own vehicles on the trails. The monkeys can scratch the paint on the cars as they jump from one to the other and the baboons are quite fond of tearing off the chrome stripping. Larger animals have even been known to overturn cars.

   Despite the warning, visitors are often lulled into thinking that nothing bad will happen to their car. All those who have watched from the sanctuary of the bus know differently. They have watched thousands of dollars of damage being done to visitors’ vehicles. They know that there is a price to pay when the warnings are ignored.1

   What about you and me? What about the Church as a whole and the citizens and politicians of our nation? Do we pay heed to warnings all around us or, like the many visitors to the African Lion Safari park, do we ignore the warnings? If we do ignore the warnings, then are we prepared to pay the price, and accept the consequences of our negligence?

   In our first lesson today, the prophet Isaiah—whose name in Hebrew means “The LORD gives salvation”—delivers a message of indictment against his people. Isaiah speaks a sharp word of judgement, which contains a glimmer of hope and promise—albeit conditional. I’m sure Isaiah must have struggled with the LORD and agonised internally over this prophetic vision. After all, who wants to be a bearer of bad news? I’m sure too, that Isaiah most likely knew what the outcome of his proclamation would be—the message would go over like a lead balloon. Isaiah would not win any popularity contests. Rather, he would win first prize for being the most despised and unpopular prophet in Jerusalem. Yet, did that prevent Isaiah from proclaiming his prophetic oracles? No way! God had chosen him to be a prophet and there was no escape. He was destined to proclaim the word of the LORD no matter what the consequences—even if it meant much ridicule, rejection and suffering, which it most certainly did.

   In classic eighth century prophetic fashion, Isaiah delivers a burning indictment against his people. The overall tone of Isaiah’s message is that of a heart-wrenching lamentation spoken out of love and the words are cast in lawsuit language. Isaiah speaking the LORD’s words places the people of Judah and Jerusalem on trial; God through Isaiah is both the Prosecuting Lawyer and the Judge. Evidence for the indictment is overwhelming—it is obvious that God’s people are “guilty as charged.” Notice too that by addressing the people and their leaders as Sodom and Gomorrah, what follows is most surely going to be a message of gloom and doom.    

   The LORD does not value his peoples’ multitude of sacrifices. He has had enough of their burnt animal offerings and takes no delight in animal blood sacrifices. The peoples’ offerings are futile; incense is an abomination to God. God cannot endure their festivals and Sabbaths—his soul hates them; they have become a burden to the LORD and he is weary of bearing them. When the people turn to God in prayer, he will hide his eyes and fail to listen to them because their hands are full of blood. In short, just because they claim to be worshipping the LORD doesn’t mean they are going to curry his favour. Quite the contrary, God is not pleased with them and their worship.

   So where does that leave God and the people of Jerusalem and Judah? Well, there is a loving plea from the LORD, although it is conditional—depending on their willingness to listen to God and his prophet by repenting from their sins and responding with acts of obedience. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In seeking justice for society’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens; Judah and Jerusalem shall be given an opportunity to receive forgiveness from the LORD and their covenant relationship shall be restored. If Judah and Jerusalem do repent, and obey the LORD they shall reap the blessings of their land. However they are warned that if they fail to repent and obey, then their enemies shall overtake and destroy them.

   This prophetic oracle of Isaiah reminds me of a similar situation a few years ago in Zimbabwe. Like Isaiah, there was a man who had the fire of a prophet and was not afraid to speak truth to power in his country. Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe openly criticized President Robert Mugabe while visiting Alberta a few years ago. Pius Ncube said he was not going to be intimidated by President Robert Mugabe. Rather, he was speaking out against the poverty and political violence in his country.

   “Half the population of Zimbabwe is short of food,” Ncube told the media while in Edmonton.  He went on to say that President Mugabe did not let the United Nation’s World Food Programme send aid, “because he wants to use food as a political tool to arm-twist people to vote for him.” At the same time as Ncube brought this indictment against Mugabe the Zimbabwe government dismissed reports of dozens of deaths in Bulawayo linked to malnutrition as lies peddled by detractors.

   The archbishop said food shortages began after the government began seizing thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks in 2000. “He gave these commission farms to his friends,” Ncube said of Mugabe.

   “Those friends of his know nothing about farming. They just sit around, enjoying that they have a farm, but they don’t do proper farming, and this is what really has brought about the food crisis in Zimbabwe.”

   “Inflation is at 500 per cent, doubling every second month,” Ncube said. “Three million Zimbabweans have left the country. Life has become a real nightmare, and people are harassed by the political forces all the time.” While in Canada, Ncube appealed to our Prime Minister to appoint a special envoy to Zimbabwe to monitor the situation.2

   So the prophetic tradition continues among God’s faithful people today. Thank God for the Pius Ncubes in our Church today! Long may they live and flourish!

   As William Sloane Coffin once said: To know God is to do justice. To recognize this implacable moral imperative of the faith represents the kind of good religion that mixes well with politics.

   There can be no truth that passes over injustice in silence; nor can there be any moral virtue that condones it. The moral order may not exhaust the beauty of holiness, but it is an essential part of it; for in the grandeur of the prophets’ vision the whole world swings on an ethical hinge. Mess with that hinge and history and even nature will feel the shock.

   God is not mocked: what is grossly immoral can never in the long run be politically expedient.3 Today Isaiah calls us to respond to God’s grace by caring for the needs and interests of society’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. For as Jesus says, what we do to them, we do to Jesus himself. Amen.

1 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-August 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 45.

2 Modified from a CBC repost on Sunday, 26 September 2004, “Archbishop speaks out against Zimbabwe’s president.”

3 Cited from: Wm. Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pp. 51, 72, & 100.

Andrew Nikiforuk on the tar sands

Writer and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk presents a very sobering analysis of the development of Alberta’s tar sands and the devastating fallout, with far-reaching political, economic, environmental and social implications for Abertans and Canadians. Most disturbing is the medical doctor who voiced concerns for the health and well being of the residents in Fort Chip. By voicing his concerns and genuinely caring about the health of these residents, he was placed under investigation. The video makes it clear to me for the need to develop, sooner than later, environmentally friendly, alternative energy sources and end our death-destroying, treadmill dependency on oil. Major lifestyle changes are required if humankind is to survive in the future on this planet. View the video here.