REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
Martin Luther King Jr preached during a time when civic unrest in the United States was boiling over. King was a civil rights leader who, as Obery Hendricks describes, “wasn’t concerned with just integrating the social order so blacks could sit next to whites at lunch counters. He was more concerned with integrating the economic order to all could eat of the fullest fruits of the tree of life.” In a sermon preached at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, King said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights … let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 
Joan Chittister is an American Benedictine nun, speaker, and author of over 50 books on spirituality. I was startled by her newest book which is a complete departure from her normal fare. Written in 2019, it is her urgent response to the shifting in American culture under the presidency of Donald Trump as it lurches farther and farther afield from its democratic statehood. In her book, “The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage”, she writes, “The future depends on whether we make serious decisions about our own roles in shaping a future that fulfills God’s will for the world, or simply choose to suffer the decisions made by others intent on imposing their own vision of tomorrow.”
She describes three possible options for our next move. “The first choice is to quit a road that is going somewhere we do not want to go … we can distance ourselves from the difficulties of it all.” The second option is to “go quietly into the oblivion, taking on the values of the day or going silent in the face of them. This choice, in other words, is to crawl into a comfortable cave with nice people and become a church, a culture, a society within a society. We can just hunker down together and wait for the storm to calm down, go by.” “The third choice is to refuse to accept a moral deterioration of the present and insist on celebrating the coming of an unknown, but surely holier, future … The third choice is a choice that demands great courage.”
Moral deterioration. The loss of a moral compass, the absence of moral authority. Thankfully, there are those who can still see, as Dr. King did, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
A colleague wrote on Facebook this week before she signed off for a summer break – “The work of anti-racism doesn’t just happen on social media. It’s the work of a lifetime … This call is a lifestyle not a fad. I think this work, to be able to succeed, must be like being on a relay team passing the baton to one another to keep the run going.”
The baton is in my hand. I picked it up in 2018 actually, when I went to the White Privilege Conference at Ryerson University in Toronto. White Privilege. I had heard those words a few years earlier but was confused as to what it meant. But I bought some books and my learning began. The baton is in my hand.
In our scripture today, Jesus begins his words with two lines of a children’s game in the market. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” As a commentary wrote, “We are to imagine girls with flutes inviting boys to dance a wedding dance, and to imagine boys calling girls to sing a funeral dirge. But the boys do not respond to the flutes, or the girls to the wailing.” Jesus connects the children’s word games to the ways in which the community could not see the truth standing before them. We read in verses 18 and 19: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ In John the Baptist, they will not see the prophet, but a demon. In Jesus, they will not see a Messiah, but a glutton and a drunkard. A commentary called this inability of the people to see Jesus for who he is as a ‘complete lack of response.’ They continued, Jesus is addressing “a people who somehow fail to respond as they might to a song that is utterly clear.”
A song that is utterly clear. I go back to the children’s game in the market place, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” We wailed, and you did not mourn.
When did we stop hearing the wailing?
On August 8, in the year 1444, the King of Portugal had his Royal Chronicler, Gomes Zurara, record the events of that day – the arrival and subsequent auction of slaves from Africa: “At dawn on August 8, 1444, Infante Henrique – Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator – sat on horseback at the port of Lagos patiently awaiting the disembarkation of cargo that had arrived from Cape Blanco. Spectators assembled to witness the portentous ritual that was about to occur. People from town and countryside lined the streets and crowded together on boats, all hoping to catch sight of this sign of Portugal’s arrival as a world power … the seamen began to make ready their boats, and to take out those captives, and carry them on shore … some captives kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature; others struck their faces with the palms of their hands, throwing themselves a full length upon the ground; others made their lamentations in the manner of a dirge … And though we could not understand the words of their language, the sound of it right well accorded with the measure of their sadness.”
The sound of it. Their lamentations. Their wailing was heard by everyone present. Their wailing was recorded in the historical documents of the royal court of the King of Portugal.
When did we stop hearing the wailing?
I was not prepared to read about Angelique, a slave who lived in Montreal in 1734, who would be arrested for burning down her owner’s house, and tried and sentenced to death. The book by Afua Cooper, the Hanging of Angelique: the Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, opened up my knowledge to the existence of slavery in Canada for over two hundred years until the “British Parliament outlawed and abolished [slavery] in all its territories in 1834.” One hundred years after Angelique’s story.
Afua Cooper writes, “In the story of North American slavery, we associate Canada with “freedom” or “refuge,” because during the nineteenth century, especially between 1830 and 1860, the period known as the Underground Railroad era, thousands of American runaway slaves escaped to and found refuge in the British territories to the north. Therefore, the image of Canada as “freedom’s land” has lodged itself in the national psyche and become part of our national identity.”
Yet, we ‘sold’ people in Canada. In the Quebec Gazette, we read these advertisements: February 23, 1769, Mr. Prenties has to sell a negro woman, aged 25 years, with a mulatto male child 9 months old. She was formerly the property of General Murray; she can be well recommended for a good house servant; handles milk well and makes butter to perfection.” And in May 10, 1785: “A gentleman going to England has for sale a negro wench, with her child … she understands thoroughly every kind of house-work, particularly washing and cookery. And a stout negro boy 13 years old. Also a good horse, cariole and harness. For particulars, enquire at Mr. William Roxburgh’s, Upper Town, Quebec.” When did we stop hearing the wailing?
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” I now hear your wailing.
Jesus said, ‘Come onto me all you that are weary, and I will give you rest.’ Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. When Jesus says ‘learn from me’, he is asking us to do more than reflect on his words in a gospel passage. He is asking us to become that work. Take my yoke upon you. Settle into the work. Pull your weight.
As my colleague said, “The work of anti-racism doesn’t just happen on social media. It’s the work of a lifetime.” And so, I am learning about slavery in Canada. I am learning about Residential Schools in Canada. I am learning about racism in our North American context. I am learning about white privilege. I am learning so that I know why that baton is in my hand.
Will you join me and pick up your baton? Amen.
 Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politic (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 201.
 Hendricks, The Universe Bends Toward Justice, vii.
 Joan Chittister, The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage (New York: Convergent, 2019), 13
 Chittister, The Time is Now, 13-14.
 https://ethicsdaily.com/how-the-long-arc-of-moral-universe-bends-toward-justice/ Accessed June 30, 2020.
 Feasting on the Word Commentary, Pastoral Perspective, 212.
 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 15.
 Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 18.
Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006), 104.
 Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique, 68-69.
 Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique, 88-89.