It is an amazing thing to be a part of a group that makes music together. Making harmony and melody means working as a team with a specific focus. It takes time and practice and skill development to hone both physical and mental activities in ways that work into a beautiful partnership. Music can be the greatest gift we can give other people, a gift of joy that is not dissimilar to the joy that Jesus hoped his followers would have. That has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic, losing our ability to make music together. Singing is a high-risk activity, and choirs, even handbell choirs are not safe when our infection rates are so high. Masks are needed for any activity that requires breath; even trombones and tubas need masks on them. This has caused pain for many people. The loss of harmony is hard to endure.
Our gospel lesson today is about joy and harmony. The harmony between Jesus and God, the harmony between Jesus and the disciples. The more harmony there was between them, the more joy there was too. But Jesus was also acutely aware that when the disciples committed to following Jesus, they committed to being out of harmony with the world. They they would look at the world through their faith and that would leave a separation that would lead to potential ostracization and disharmony. They would be feared and hated for their loyalty, and it would not be easy for them.
Such is the world at it’s most disharmonious. It has led to wars and discrimination, racism, sexism and bullying. Racism that has increasingly targeted Asian people since Trump started calling Covid by its country of origin. And that nickname for Covid gave some people permission to act violently in numbers that I don’t remember hearing before. It is disheartening to see racist flags being flown in our county and know that hatred is here.
Store clerks and health care workers are also being targeted for bullying and abuse. People are loudly proclaiming that they are doing this because they are Christian and anything that limits their ability to preach the Gospel is an attack on their faith. The world hates them, they claim, and maybe they are reading this same passage today as a justification for their behavior.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be the target of bullying because of my ethnic background. To constantly wonder what kind of behavior I will get when I wander into a store. Will I be snubbed by store employees or by customers? Will it be because of my gender or my skin tone? Will people complain that I talk funny or be shocked to hear how Canadian my English sounds when I look like I have come from away? Such is the daily lived experience of many people. It’s not something they can turn off or avoid.
I’ll never forget gathering in Edmonton three years ago and hearing the stories of racism that United Church ministers were facing. Some of them spoke bravely and boldly about the discrimination and bullying they experienced. Others were more quiet and reluctant to speak out. One of the participants was MiYeon Kim, the minister who wrote the prayers we are using today. I first met her when we were student ministers in Alberta North West Conference, and we attended many workshops together with her fiancé Taylor Croissant. In a sermon she wrote to go along with these prayers, she said that when she moved to Canada, she had to struggle with her own racist assumptions. Growing up in Korea, she heard many stories about the atrocities her people experienced during the second world war, especially young girls who were forced into becoming ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers. She tells us:
I recognize that I also have prejudice and hostility toward the Japanese people in my innermost heart. In Korea I had very little exposure to Japanese people, so my prejudices were not challenged. However, my life and ministry in Canada have allowed me to meet and work with Japanese people in the United Church: Dr. Kathy Yamashita and the Rev. Kyoko Miura.
I met Kathy Yamashita at the final meeting of Alberta & Northwest Conference in May 2018. As President of the Conference, she led the meeting with outstanding leadership and wonderful humour. I was so impressed by her.
When Kathy visited our presbytery in her capacity as Conference President, she shared with us her own family’s story during the meeting. I learned that Japanese-Canadians suffered persecution during World War II; they were placed in internment camps and had their property taken from them. It was a story I had never heard before.
I became acquainted with the Rev. Kyoko in a class I took for my continuing education. In the class, she and I were the only Asians among 15 other students. Whether she knew my buried prejudice toward Japanese people or not, she visited with me every breaktime and lunchtime. Ironically, she was the only one who showed me that much kindness. I slowly opened my heart from politeness to friendship… it became a new challenge for me to overcome my own prejudice... To open my mind and make harmony with Japanese people today, despite the wrong actions of people in the past… and to live out Christ’s commandment to become reconciled with our neighbours. It is not easy. I may need to fight hard against the stereotypes that I grew up with all around me in South Korea.
For someone as sweet and friendly and kind as MiYeon to admit she needs to fight hard against stereotypes is a real surprise. But that is part of what Jesus wanted when he prayed that God strengthen and protect the disciples. To help them resist the teachings of the world that says bullying is a part of life and help them instead find much joy as they follow the way that Jesus taught them. May we too find much joy as we work to build harmony in our lives with our neighbors through remembering and following the teachings of Jesus, teachings of love, compassion, courage and forgiveness. And may that building of harmony transform even our inmost hearts until we know abundant joy in all our relations!