A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
A Prayer of Welcome
Open our hearts to those most in need:
The unemployed parent worried about feeding his or her children,
The woman who is underpaid, harassed, or abused.
The Black man and woman who fear for their lives.
The immigrant at the border, longing for safety.
The homeless person looking for a meal.
The LGBT teen who is bullied.
The unborn child in the womb.
The inmate on death row.
Help us to be a nation where
every life is sacred,
all people are loved,
and all are welcome.
The Rev. James Martin, S.J.
When I was a diocesan seminarian, many years ago, before I left for the monastery, I participated in a fascinating retreat. The retreat master asked us a very surprising question, “Can you find yourself in Sacred Scripture?” That was, honestly, something which had never occurred to me before! I had always thought that the stories found in Scripture—both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures were about other people. It had never occurred to me that they might have something to do with me!
He went on to suggest something even more radical. He said that if we wanted to make the stories of the Christian Scriptures meaningful for those with whom we would be sharing them, we would have to find a way to re-tell them in ways that would make sense to them. He made a daunting proposal to us. What would it be like to write a Gospel that used characters and locations and foods from our own culture? What would it mean for me to write a Southern Mountain Gospel in which Jesus, the Disciples, the friends and followers of Jesus, the authorities—religious and civil—looked, spoke, and acted like me? I am sorry to say that I never took him up on that invitation. But, it is a challenge which has haunted me from the edge of everything I have done ever since that day. It is something which I aspire to do—and hope to do before I die.
The point, I came to realize, is that unless the Scriptures are so real to us that we can hear the voices of those who are speaking, view the animals, the flowers, and see the places where the actions unfold; unless we can smell the streets, taste the food, and feel the texture of the clothing, it will not be possible for us to convincingly share those stories with the life-changing power which is contained within them. Clearly, the retreat master must have been influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, because this was the radical approach which he proposed.
Just a few years ago, I was blessed to attend the Episcopal Latino Ministry Competency Course at Sewanee. One of the presenters there, invited us to view the Scriptures—and especially the Gospels from the perspective of those who “live on the border.” This was another fascinating insight. We were challenged to view the Gospel stories from the perspective of those who were excluded from our society, from our institutions, and from the structures of power which dominate so much. What would it mean to read those stories as an immigrant at the border? As a Black person? As a person of Color? What would it mean to read those inspired words as a Woman, as an LGBTQIA person, as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a Hindu or Buddhist? What would it mean to read the words and actions of Jesus as someone who had been hurt by organized religion, as someone who had been abused? What would it mean to read of banquets and feasts when one was homeless, and hungry, and naked, and ill, or afraid?
Is it possible for each of us to find ourselves in those stories? Can we find a loving God who cares for us, who values us, who treasures us, and who calls us to loving service—to ministry in our own homes, and communities, and in our wider world? Is it possible for us to find the “other” in those stories? And if we really want to do that, how do we even get started?
One of the greatest blessings of the Twentieth Century was “Liberation Theology.” Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and from many other sources, this theology sought to unshackle the power of Sacred Scripture for those who exploited, oppressed, victimized, and excluded. This “theology of those at the bottom,” looked to the Gospels and especially to the words and actions of Jesus to find ways to take on systemic injustice, racism, and prejudice. They found in Jesus a revolutionary who had come to bring social transformation. They found a Jesus who invited all to inclusive community—where the abundance of God’s generosity provided more than ample resources for the needs of all. Often working in poor villages and communities of “los de abajo,” as they were called, these liberationists did not hesitate to proclaim that Jesus was on the side of the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalized. They said that Church and other institutions must have a “preferential option for the poor.” And, to the surprise of no-one, their prophetic teaching was met with anger, hostility, and violence by those in power. Archbishop Romero is but one example There are many, many others. We can not forget, for example, the Sisters who were also martyred in El Salvador.
What is it that prevents us from entering this kind of a dialog with Scripture? I think that it is our own experience. It is the blinders which we wear every day. It is the “privilege” which, at first unconsciously, blinds us to the presence of others. It isn’t that we don’t want to see them, or their reality, it is just that we are oblivious to them! They are invisible to us.
Am I a man? If so, I will probably not pay much attention to women in scripture. Am I White? If so, I am far less likely to view BIPOC as being present in Scripture—when obviously they are there! Am I a Christian? Then I am less likely to see others who are not Christian (and I probably make the mistake of assuming that all the “good people” are Christians, when almost none of them were—at least in the way that we understand that term after the first century of the Common Era.).
The invitation then, is for me to take off my blinders. The invitation is for me to read Scripture as if though I was a woman, a BIPOC person, a homeless and poor person, an immigrant, someone who is not a Christian, or even a person of faith. In so doing, I might well discover a Jesus whom I had never known? I might well discover a surprising, loving, and powerfully challenging God. I might be challenged to become an anti-racist, an anti-misogynist, an anti-homophobe, or anti-transphobe. I might be challenged to become a pro-Semite, a pro-Muslim, a pro-Inter-faith dialog partner. I might be challenged to work for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the homeless. I might suddenly realize that in each of these, I am able to find, to love and to serve Jesus.
Just in case you were tempted to ask, yes, but what does any of that have to do with the readings appointed for our use this day? I would like to share with you, a brief reflection recently written by the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, the Right Reverend Robert Wright.
“Deliverers: Moses became the great deliverer but who delivered Moses? There’s no Exodus without the faithfulness of women. Shiphrah and Puah remembered that God is God alone and refused Pharaoh’s order to kill all the newborn male children. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam masterminded a plan to float Moses in a basket to the house of Pharaoh and to Pharaoh’s daughter. And Miriam arrives just as Pharaoh’s daughter lays eyes on Moses with an offer to find a wet-nurse, Jochebed, Moses’ and Miriam’s own mother!
That’s how God’s most amazing intervention in human history began, with the defiant, genius, faith of a few women. They found the edge of things and made their faith stand there. Did they think their faith would change the course of human history? Doubtful.
Still, God has a habit of pulling together the small acts of the people of faith to make a grand masterpiece. Maybe Moses becomes a deliverer because he was trying to live up to the delivering faith of the women all around him. We need the faith, bravery, and defiance of the daughters of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, and Miriam now. Mary McLeod Bethune is right, “the true worth of a race can be measured by the character of its womanhood.” – Exodus 1:8-2:10”
Jesus asked his disciples a question, “Who do you say I am?” May we find in Jesus all those who have been rejected, excluded, oppressed, and victimized. Because I think that this may well be the only place, we will be able to find the “Messiah,” the “Son of the Living God.”