Published July 17, 2017 in the Ames Tribune
By Eileen Gebbie
I begin each Sunday morning at 5 a.m. with coffee and final sermon preparation.
In my tradition, a sermon is a talk (10–20 minutes) about the day’s Bible story. It might be a description of the passage’s historical context or language, to illuminate the authoring community’s cultural reality and assumptions; a critical analysis of the story using the tools of post-colonial, womanist, feminist, liberation or other theologies; a “what in the world does this have to do with the world now” reflection; or a combination of these.
The result is that one week I might say, “God is like X” and another “God is like Y.” The Bible is, itself, inconsistent and self-critical. Successive stories are in dialogue with those that came before, and with different outcomes. So one of the cornerstones of my tradition’s faith is an understanding that faith is an issue of dialogue rather than dogma, asking questions rather than asserting answers.
So, what is the point? What is the point in my offering a sermon if there is so much room for interpretation and even disagreement? If going to church does not provide clear instruction and consequences for disobeying those instructions, why bother? Who needs to go to a special building to be reminded that life is uncertain and we can’t all just get along? And on top of that, why deal with being asked to sing potentially annoying songs and shake hands with strangers?
Let me give one answer with one of our stories, one that we share with (took from) Judaism. It’s called “The Exodus.”
In The Exodus, we learn that a distinct religious and ethnic group, known in this portion of the Bible as the Hebrews, is enslaved. They have no standing in the nation they call home. They are bereft and broken and under constant threat. The nation tries, as nations do, to silence all dissent.
But thanks to a few smart women, a child grows up to lead his people to freedom: Moses. Moses is not perfect. He is a murderer and he runs away from his responsibilities. He marries outside of his ethnicity and his faith. But when Moses comes back, bringing his blended family, he gets busy helping his people with the holiness of justice, God. Moses and God confront the nation over and over again in plague-like ways.
Eventually, it works. Eventually, all of the Hebrews leave enslavement to find their own way. It isn’t all sunshine and lollipops in freedom. It is a hard desert road. And, maybe even worse, the free people discover that they aren’t any better than the nation that held them down for so long: They have the same capacity for nationalism and abuse that had made their own lives such a hell. But they have, at last, the chance to rise to the occasion of equality that God offers.
In his classic theological text, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggeman describes Moses’ work as “evoking cries that expect answers, learning to address them where they will be taken serious, and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire that never intended to answer in the first place” (second edition, p. 13). In other words, be strategic with your energies and stop expecting those who benefit from your enslavement to be of any help.
Now, Brueggemann makes it very clear that his interpretation is not just about “doing social justice” à la the political left and progressive. He’s quite critical of those camps for using stories like The Exodus for those means, while leaving the divine behind.
But as you read my recap of the scripture and the theologian, did you find your imagination, your mind, and even your heart begin to move? Did you see yourself in some part of the story, did you think about our contemporary struggles? Did you wish you could add your own reflection, in real time, with people whose faces and postures you can see and so you know they are really listening?
We do not lack, in this era of human existence, for people who want to tell us what to believe. We have constant, all-day and all-night access to the strident assertions of those who have no room for questions and will not tolerate contradictions.
What gets me up on Sunday mornings is not an egomaniacal drive to be the spiritual boss of anyone. It is the unadulterated joy of joining in with millennia of story tellers, pastors, theologians, and seekers in wondering what freedom looks like and how to endure, in body and soul, the long walk to it without enslaving others along the way.
If you are feeling singed, shuttered, or sorrowful, consider who you are looking to for answers or relief. Is it the empire that does not care, the corporations that profit from your attention, or those who post online only to stir a reaction rather than have a conversation? Or is it something more eternal, something that gathers in circles and song, risking the awkward handshake and dopey song because at least in that moment skin is committed to skin and many voices are made as one?
Eileen Gebbie is Senior Minister at Ames UCC.