Delivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”
However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.
Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.
As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.
The white people were agog.
In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.
While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.
Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.
What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?
What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?
I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.
Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.
I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.
But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?
In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed hour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.
JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.
Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.
Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.
The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.
Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.
That’s what I want for all of us.
That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.
So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.
Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.
And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.
1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.