11 Pentecost C—8/25/19
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6; Luke 13:10-17
Pr. Scott Kramer
Yesterday I was at home working on this sermon, when I went upstairs for a break. There in the dining room was something I’d never before seen inside our house. A Bewick’s wren, one of the great songbirds native to the Pacific Northwest, somehow had slipped through our flimsy screen door and was frantically, desperately trying to fly out through the plate glass window. I approached it and gently trapped it with a towel, carried it outside and released it, apparently unharmed.
For five minutes this little bird experienced the trauma of being trapped inside a structure that offered little freedom. Today, we join many other churches across our land in observing a significant anniversary. In late August of 1619, the first of many slave ships arrived on American shores. Today we confess, not five minutes, but four hundred years of structures that have created trauma and provided little freedom for millions of our fellow human beings.
Some of us may be tempted to say, “Slavery is ancient history; what does that have to do with us?”
In the Book of Acts, Chapter 7, an early Christian named Stephen stood before a crowd and recalled in great detail the story of God’s powerful deeds among God’s people. The story he told also was ancient history, but Stephen connected the dots between that long history and his audience–which cost him his life.
The gist of Stephen’s message was that those who had been entrusted with the story of freedom—the story of God’s love for all—had forgotten their purpose and mission, practicing slavery and oppression instead of freedom; hatred and murder instead of love and life. For that, Stephen’s “God-fearing” audience stoned him to death, making Stephen the first Christian martyr.
Like that murderous crowd of religious people, we don’t like it when we’re shown the gap between what we want to believe about ourselves and what’s true. In today’s reading, Jesus does just that. Like Stephen, he pounds yet another nail into his own coffin when he accuses some in his audience of caring more about rules and laws than about compassion, mercy, justice and love. You hypocrites, he says. You treat your animals better than you treat human beings who, like you, have been created in God’s image.
Four hundred years ago in our own country, yet another chapter was added to this ancient story of religious hypocrisy. In 1619, the first slaves were unloaded onto American shores, at Point Comfort, from an English ship called the White Lion (you can’t make this stuff up!). For the next 250 years, white people who called themselves God-fearing treated their fellow human beings as something lower than their own pets and livestock.
And yet, it is easy to look to the past and judge others. The prophet Isaiah declares in today’s reading that godliness requires courageous, relentless scrutiny of ourselves. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger…
It isn’t enough for us to dismiss slavery in America as ancient history. It misses the mark by a wide margin to say, “We’re over that,” because our record as a so-called “Christian” nation since the abolition of slavery shows that not as much has changed as we’d like to think. Slavery was replaced by ingenious new forms of oppression: sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, lynchings. The photo in your bulletin of black women working the cotton fields was taken seventy years after the end of the Civil War. Hunched over like the woman in today’s gospel reading, they don’t look like they’re earning union wages!
We in the North are tempted to think of ourselves as enlightened. And yet, I have here a copy of a Lakeridge neighborhood covenant—your church’s neighborhood–from the 20th century that reads: Said premises shall not be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person not of the White Race, nor shall any person not of the White Race be permitted to occupy any portion of the premises or of any building thereon, except a domestic servant actually employed by a white occupant of said building.
Redlining. Segregation. Shootings. Hate crimes. Profiling. Mass incarceration. The spirit of the slave master is very much alive—more subtle and sophisticated in some ways, but very much alive.
Our scripture readings for today are about Christian freedom. This is not the “freedom” that many in our land use as code language for protecting economic, political and social privilege.
Christian freedom is profoundly different from American freedom. These are two very different stories that compete for our hearts and minds, and each day brings new opportunities for all of us to choose one. If we don’t choose a story and don’t know the stories, the story will choose us, and it likely won’t be God’s story.
The difference between these stories is what we find in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. It’s a cautionary tale about how easy it is even for good church-going folk to follow something other than God’s story.
14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Forgetting God’s story of freedom, he was like a “broken record” (to use an outdated term), a prisoner of his own fears and rules and traditions that weighed other people down.
The synagogue leader’s response to Jesus’ liberating power raises an important question for us: What is it that we “keep saying”? What “same old song” do we hold in our heads and our hearts that—like that synagogue leader–keep us stuck, keeping in place rules and attitudes and values that keep our brothers and sisters—our siblings in Christ—from being truly free?
Here are a few: “We’re a free nation. Everyone has the same opportunity. We even elected a black President.”
Even taking at face value such dubious claims, we’ve learned that all it takes is one election to show how fragile and superficial and hypocritical our “progress” has been. How easy it is to turn back the clock, following our own story rather than God’s story!
For four hundred years God’s people were in bondage in Egypt, because the customs and laws and values of Egypt “kept saying” the same things for centuries. Little changed from generation to generation.
But not forever. Those who remember God’s story know that after four hundred years of injustice, the oppressed were set free when the mighty nation of Egypt finally was brought to its knees by ten plagues. Just prior to being stoned to death, Stephen declared: And God spoke in these terms, that [Abraham’s] descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years. 7 ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ (Acts 7:6-7)
It’s a sobering story.
In spite of all this, I remain hopeful. Not because of our national story. Certainly not because of national leadership. Not even because of religious institutions, which need to be closely scrutinized (Let the synagogue leader in today’s story be Exhibit A). I am encouraged most by the faith of ordinary people who are doing the work of Christ. They—including some among us–are working hard and courageously toward healing those who are burdened and bent over by injustice.
This past Friday evening, for example, twenty-five folks gathered in our fellowship hall to listen to the powerful poetry of a local black artist, to break bread together, and to listen to one another in a community circle. Those of us like me who are people of privilege could stay mostly silent, listening to the freedom song of those who are weighed down. Those who are bent over by laws and attitudes that never seem to change could find hope in the stories of others.
It was a glimpse of how the healing power of Christ takes hold when privilege encounters and learns from those who are bent over and weighed down. When we who hold all the cards talk less and listen more, God’s story has a chance of taking hold in our life together. God’s story assures us that it is precisely in ordinary faithfulness that we see signs of God’s “kin-dom” breaking into the world.
Friends, God has called us to be Christ to the world, to love and to be loved, to set free and be set free. This is our freedom song!