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Tuesday, October 30 - the Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano

This sermon was preached for the (transferred) Feast Day of Hiram Hisanori Kano on Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at All Saints' Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific. The readings for this sermon are: Isaiah 49:8–13, Psalm 42, Ephesians 2:19–22, and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Here is the table, we have taken our seats.

Of course the reality is, there isn’t just one table, is there? Aren’t there many throughout our lives, literal and figurative? Isn’t life full of getting up and sitting down, getting invited to this table and excluded from that one? As much as we students like our assigned seats, and Episcopalians our pews, our positions at these multiple tables are always shifting, always in relation to others, always in context.

In the first part of this Gospel passage, Jesus is not talking about the heavenly banquet table, but all of those many tables his fellow diners are invited to throughout their lives. And here’s the thing--Jesus does not condemn them for striving for a better place at those tables, for yearning for dignity and shrinking from disgrace. If anything, he’s making a strategic recommendation for how to do it better. He’s acknowledging that one's places at the many tables of this life matter.

Week after week, we are reminded that to be at the lowest seat at the table of American Civil Society is to be hunted and threatened and dehumanized. That to attempt to sit in a chair with a bit more dignity and to be shoved back into place is to be shot in the synagogue on the Sabbath, to be killed at Kroger’s in Kentucky, to be beaten and bullied and bombed. Humiliation is more than an uncomfortable feeling, at some tables it is life and death.

Could this be the good news: that this table or that table, in the end, they are not who we are?

In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus invites us to recognize when it is our turn to be the host. He calls us to use those times to invite forward the outcast and humiliated. In these actions, we signify that the statuses and honors of this life are not the full story. Self-worth can spring first from a holy dwelling-place, from a membership of a household truer than these. Rooted in the resurrection. The one final table.

Here, then, is the paradox of the parable. There is more to the story than these earthly rewards. And yet, these places at all these tables matter.

I first picked this Gospel passage for the Feast Day of Hiram Hisanori Kano because I thought his story to be one of a humble man finally exalted. Yet when I dove into Father Kano’s memoirs, I realized his story is not a story about humility, it is a story about the humiliation of his people and how his faith compelled him to respond.

Hiram Kano is my husband’s great-grandfather. He emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1916 on a mission to build world peace through fairer immigration policies. At the time, only whites and blacks could become American citizens. Hiram vowed never to return to Japan until Asian-Americans were also granted the right to naturalize. To that end, Hiram settled in Nebraska, where he organized and taught a small farming community of other Japanese-Americans.

In 1921, Hiram came before the Nebraska assembly to fight against a proposed law that would rob Japanese-Americans of the right to own land. He spoke eloquently of his deep love for his adopted country, his desire to be buried in this beloved land, all born out of his deep Christian faith. The law was struck down. It was then, too, that Bishop George Allan Beecher first took note of Hiram's community organizing and missionary work among the Japanese, eventually ordaining him as a missionary deacon, then a priest of the Episcopal Church.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, after celebrating Eucharist, Father Kano was arrested on the steps of his church and imprisoned, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing. This was a moment of deep shame for Father Kano, an act of betrayal by his beloved adopted homeland. He wrote: “We had committed no crime, yet we were imprisoned and our human rights taken away. This was truly an unendurable humiliation.” [1]

And yet, in the same breath as he describes the camps, the guards and searchlights, being stripped of his possessions and given a criminal number, in that same paragraph, Father Kano writes, “at the same time this camp was indeed the work given me by God…I made a firm resolution to go about His business.” [2]

Father Kano was forcibly removed from the seat at a table for which he had fought and strived for so long. But he also chose to see this as God’s call for him to host a new table, one at which the imprisoned and discarded and distrusted were gathered.

“God gave me five churches,” Father Kano writes—the five internment camps Hiram was moved to throughout the war. And in each, he preached and prayed and pastored with his people. He reminded the Japanese-Americans that their ultimate dignity and worth could not be harmed. “If we live here with hopes and with goals of building the kingdom of God, we should never have any fears of being hurt by others,” he said in a speech in the camps. “We do not need to be fearful. In God’s eyes we are Americans.” [3] He writes movingly, too, about how his sermons and worship services drew in the soldiers and guards of the camps, who sang and prayed and listened to the story of Jesus told by a man that looked like the enemy.

Father Kano placed his hope in God, and yet remained focused on fighting for the right of naturalization for his people. His tireless efforts unifying and organizing Japanese-Americans in the camps contributed to Asian-Americans finally earning the right to naturalize in 1952. Because of his work, thousands of Asian-Americans will cast their votes in elections a week from today. Hundreds of Japanese-American Christians found a home in the Episcopal Church. These seats at these tables, they matter. And, they are not the end be all. They cannot be. Especially not if we take Jesus on his word throughout the Gospels that it will be the excluded who will welcomed first to that final table.

And so I wonder. I wonder what Father Kano’s great project of assimilation cost. I wonder about the price my own ancestors paid to earn a seat at the table of whiteness. I wonder about the small ways I give in to the positions on which I perch. I wonder if taking a seat at a table has ever asked you let go parts of yourself, too. Humiliation may be costly, but so might staying here, in the seats we are told define us.

To me, the exquisite pain of being Christian is to live between the many tables and the one. To feel the everyday humiliations and exaltations of living in community, and at the same time to trust that there is something more.

And so I come to this table, the one where Jesus is the host, re-orienting myself week in and week out. And so I long for it to change how I sit at the many tables throughout my life.

This is where I need help, your help, and perhaps you need mine. How do I discern when it is time to relinquish my seat to another? Or when it is time instead to stay, and say, “Friend, come sit by me”? When is it time to leave the table all together and be as Father Kano, the gracious host, gathering up those excluded and expelled and those who have no invitations?

Throughout it all, through our actions and our prayers and our words, how might we always to point to the one true table at which we “are no longer strangers and aliens but…citizens with the saints…members of the household of God.”

Join me at the table. Let’s eat.

Icon of Father Kano in Church of Our Savior, North Platte, Nebraska 
[1] The Rev. Hisanori Kano, Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska Plains, trans. Tai Kreidler (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2010), 130.
[2] Ibid., 126.
[3] Ibid., 134-135


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