CANADA:50 the Anniversary of my Ordination, 2008

FISH FOR BREAKFAST

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on the occasion of my 50th Anniversary of ordination

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Jesus broiled fish on charcoal. This was breakfast he prepared for Peter and others after his resurrection . I like this story, because I like fish for breakfast: Smoked salmon on a bagel, Lake Winnipeg smoked gold-eye on toast, grilled mackerel on Japanese rice. Yum! Besides I am a practical person. I don’t understand spirituality all that well. But I understand food. For me spirituality is a practical matter like overcoming hunger or working for justice. Jesus prepared a breakfast by barbequing fish for Peter and others. Jesus’ resurrection diminishes death to just another passage in our lives; it’s the end of hopelessness. It means we can start a new chapter with a good breakfast – fish on bread by the lake with friends. It sounds so happy, and indeed it was a happy time. It was a celebration.

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Another reason I like this story is the ‘letting-go’ aspect of it. Jesus totally let go of the sad past, and behaved as though nothing had ever happened between him and the disciples a few days before he died. Remember, the disciples behaved shamefully. Where were they when Jesus needed friends? Where were they when Jesus was arrested, tried and killed? They were nowhere; they ran away. Peter, the leader of the pack, even denied that he ever knew Jesus at all. He was so scared of being seen as having had any connection with the person who was on trial. Just a few hours before Jesus’ arrest, he had sworn to Jesus, “I will go anywhere with you, I will even die with you.” What a liar, what a coward, what a scumbag! Who needs enemies with friends like that? But on that beach, Jesus behaved as though nothing like that ever happened. The story of “Fish for breakfast on the beach” is about letting go of the shortcomings of others and of forgiveness.

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When I think back on my fifty years, I am overwhelmed by the amazing grace that allowed me to be a part of God’s on-going project of spreading love to the whole creation. I am a man of many shortcomings. I could very well be any one of those cowardly disciples, who were invited to that breakfast. God gave me many privileges to be a witness for amazing people doing amazing things. The people I met were brave, committed, and totally faithful to those they loved and to the causes they believed in. They were truly martyrs.

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Here I wish to explain a little about the words ‘witness’ and ‘martyr. The Greek word for ‘witness’ is ‘martrion’, which became the English word for ‘martyr’. It came from the stories of brave acts of early Christians, who never denied what they saw even at the risk to their lives. They never ceased to be witnesses to the amazing life of Jesus Christ. This is how the word ‘witness’ came to mean ‘martyr’. They didn’t seek death. They were simply determined to be truthful to what they witnessed.

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An example of such a witness is the captain of the company of Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus. He supervised the execution and saw how Jesus died. After Jesus died, he said, “Truly, this man was a son of God.” The captain was not a follower of Jesus. To him, Jesus was just another condemned prisoner. The soldier was simply following orders to execute a criminal. He had no idea who the prisoner was.

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When I think about many people I encountered in my life, I feel like this captain. Perhaps this is very clear when I think of going to Africa in 1968. I wasn’t volunteering to do anything extraordinary or dangerous. I just wanted to go to Africa. There I met Desmond Tutu, teaching in the same department with me. I met Steve Biko, in the Student Christian Movement. But most of the people I met, courageous though they may have been, nobody knows their names. But they were amazing people and did amazing things.

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Many South Africans remained nameless. Mapetla Mohapi was one of them: he was a treasurer of an organization Steve Biko ran, and I, as a supporter of Biko’s cause, had many contacts with him. He was strangled to death in his cell in King Williams Town near Durban. Nobody remembers his name. He worked just as hard as Steve Biko for the dignity of Black people in South Africa. I taught at the University in Lesotho, and worked with Student Christian Movement of South Africa during the 1970”s. After I was expelled from South Africa, I worked from Geneva, Switzerland to continue to support people who were working to change the unjust system. I think, for example, of students who were shot by the police in Soweto in 1976. I was a Canadian, I was safe in Switzerland or in Canada, but those South Africans risked their lives. It was those nameless people – as much as the Tutus or Bikos – who fought injustice, and brought down the Apartheid regime.

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Another such heroic person was an Ethiopian woman. I saw her walking towards of a feeding camp in the city of Makele in northern Ethiopia. At the time, I was the coordinator of famine relief for the World Council of Churches during the 1980”s. She was so emaciated and weak, and could hardly walk. A few people tried to help her and to hold her by the arms. But she kept shooing away the helping hands. She was proud and looked dignified like any farmer around the world. Farmers are proud people anywhere. They think receiving charity is a humiliation and a shame. Probably that’s why she stayed home trying to feed the family anyway she could during the severe drought and famine, after her crops failed. She should have given up and started to walk towards charity much earlier before she got so weak. I saw her later in the camp lying on a floor looking at a digestive cookie: the usual first easy to digest food given to extremely malnourished persons, just to give them sugar. She didn’t even have a strength to lift it to her mouth, so she was just looking at it. A nurse had to put it between her lips. She probably died a few hours later. She had a cross around her neck, like many Ethiopians who are Orthodox Christians. But I still remember her act of defiance as though to say, “Go away, I can do it by myself.” She was a witness to the power of human dignity.

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I think of the Japanese Canadians I worked among when I first came to Canada in 1957. You may know that most of Japanese who came to Canada beginning 1892 were not Christians. Those who joined the church did so rightly or wrongly believing that becoming Christians was the way to become Canadians. They believed that Canada was a good country and they gave up the old tradition and embraced a new religion despite an accusation by fellow immigrants for being traitors to their heritage.. The test of their faith came during the Second World War. The country they believed in to be fair and just betrayed them, and called them “enemy aliens,” even though there was no such evidence. All cars, fishing boats, all property, even radios, were confiscated before they were removed from the coast. I did research on this when I was working for my Master’s degree in B.C. But they held on to the Christian belief and didn’t abandon the church, believing that Canadians would eventually see the light. Now they are a part of the fabric of Canada and most certainly of Southern Alberta.

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I remember Palestinian Christian Doris Salleh, Kameel Nassr, Elias Khoury, and Alfred Noursi, in East Jerusalem, people I met when I was working for the Canadian Council of Churches during the 1980”s. They were much younger than I was. They all died young. Their daily stress of working for the well-being of Palestinian people under Israeli occupation in West Bank and East Jerusalem took a big toll on their health. Their lives were and still are incredibly difficult. But they never stopped. Many Christian Palestinians migrated to the western countries like Canada, but those friends I mentioned were determined to stay to work for their people and have paid the price.

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They are the people who expressed their spirituality in practical terms, in their struggle for justice and human dignity. They taught me so much about ministry, about being a faithful witness, about forgiveness and letting-go, and about the importance of having time for a celebratory meal together, of not giving into hopelessness. I am so honored to have known them by name, by being able to say, “They were my friends. I don’t know why I have been privileged to have met them. I guess I just happened to be there like the soldier who happened to see Jesus crucified. I was doing a job, and they were there, we often ate together, and I saw what they did. The least I can do is to tell their stories.

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