Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon - Liberation Theology

Exodus 5:10-21
Acts 5:27-39
Matthew 25:24-30
Psalm 146

Opening Greeting
Peace is letting go
Returning to the silence that cannot enter the realm of words
Because it is too pure to be contained in words.
This is why the tree, the stone, the river, and the mountain are quiet
- Malidoma Patrice Some

Music: Ripple, The Grateful Dead
We Shall Overcome
This Little Light of Mine

Before the sermon, we have a time with the youth. This is an interactive time of the service, so I will just list the questions that I asked and discussion highlights.

Do you know what it means to protest? Well, what if I said, “I want you to go clean the Sunday School room, give the table a good scrubbing, I’ll be down there in 15 minutes to inspect it and it better look nice or no dinner.” Okay, so now you are protesting. You are having a sit down strike and telling me your grievances. I’m not being fair, am I?

80 years ago, in this country, right here in Minnesota, people were treated very unfairly, adults and children your age were given the choice of a job working 12 hour days with no lunch break in dangerous conditions, or they could live on the street. It took years, but they protested, they organized, and formed unions and worked with their employers to make life better for everybody.

Before you go, let me make this perfectly clear. When your mother tells you to clean your room, she is being fair. When you protest, you need to have a good reason.

Liberation Theology

In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Heschel gave a speech at the Conference on Religion and Race and said, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses [audience laughter and clapping]. Moses' words were: 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.”
Heschel was a great man, he marched with Martin Luther King. Our bishop, Sally Dyck has quoted him recently, the quote she used was, “when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.” He said in that 1955, an uncertain and difficult time, not at all unlike today.

The challenge of each generation is to keep our faith from becoming an heirloom, to apply it to the new problems of the day without simply wishing for the good ole days.

How you go about doing that has a lot to do with how successful you will be.

First there is first some due diligence. I do believe there is value to simply picking up a Bible, reading a passage cold, and seeing if it speaks to you. This can also lead you away from what its original author meant, so looking in to what other Bible readers through history have said about the passage and what modern archeology has discovered about the time it was written and understanding of the ancient language itself, is also important.

Now ancient languages might not interest you, I do this as just a sort of hobby. I like the study of history and culture and religion is an important part of that. I also believe the answers to some of our more perplexing problems will come with the help of these ancient traditions. But since I am an amateur, you are allowed to not take me too seriously. Some of what I will say today goes a little against the grain. But then, going against the grain is also part of the Christian tradition.

Around the same time Abraham Heschel was marching with Martin Luther King Jr., our pastor, Rick Edwards was going to seminary and had been in the Peace Corps in Colombia. When he was back in New York, working at an information table at a conference for the North American Congress on Latin America a man came up to him and said, “Ud es un comunista!” “You are a communist”. He said this jokingly, trying to get a rise out of Rick, which he didn’t get, so they both had a good laugh.

The man was Gustav Gutierrez, who had recently published a book, Teologia de la Liberacion, Liberation Theology. This was the time of Vatican II and in Latin America, Christians were participating in the movements for freedom and solidarity with the poor and workers rights and equal rights for different races and indigenous populations, just as people were here in the United States. And some of them were being called communists.

I’m not going to try to sort out the politics of the 60’s here today or take sides in a debate about socialism. Just as I quoted Heschel earlier saying we don’t want to return to a time of strict rules, I am not suggesting that we return to a time of doing whatever feels right and dismissing anything said by anyone over 30 years old. Many good things came out of that time, but there were mistakes made then and we can learn from them.

Part of my education on this has been books on liberation theology that Pastor Rick has supplied for me, so let’s take a look at what they say. First, if you are going to declare yourself in solidarity with the poor, you need to define what that means. Most of us are surviving fairly well.

Who are the poor?
Those with no money or land, that’s obvious.
Poor in mobility, discriminated against, no advantages.
Evangelically poor – everybody else who puts spirit before stuff. Those who may have, but are aware that if you have, there then is a responsibility to give.

Rather than go into more detail, I think it would be more interesting to show how this is applied. I choose the reading from the Old Testament about Moses, this is has been used by many enslaved people throughout time to build a resistance, right up to the slaves in this country. The entire book of Acts is about building a movement, and I also choose the Parable of the Talents.

I picked the part that many speakers have trouble with, that poor 3rd slave who gets cast out into the outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. When I reviewed the common interpretations of this parable a few years ago, it struck me as odd and not quite right. Fortunately, finding the handful of people who are preaching an alternative interpretation is a lot easier to do these days, and that is when I first discovered liberation theology. At the time, I didn’t even know that it had a name.

Parable of the Talents

It begins with “for it will be like”, so we know it’s a parable. Often a master in a parable is an analogy for God or Jesus. The master gives his slaves some money and 2 of them do something with it. When the master returns, they have increased their wealth. The analogy works okay up to this point and we get commonly used phrases like “those who have will be given more” which could mean; accept the gifts from heaven and you will be rewarded with more, or from a related text in Luke, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

And then you get the third slave fessing up that he hid his talents, he even says that he is acting out of fear. In similar situations, Jesus has forgiven people and encouraged them to do better in the future, this master gives the guy a lecture.

Do we have any reason to believe the 3rd slave? The slave says: “you reaped where you did not sow, and the master does not refute it, he just responds angrily. Now, I know Jesus isn’t all sweetness and nice, and that is a long discussion in itself, but this passage is just too out of character for me.

The master also says, “You should have put it in the bank.” I find no other Judge, King or prophet suggesting this. In fact Moses specifically forbids the use of money to make money. So these are clues that maybe the analogy to Jesus is not correct.

If it is not, then we need an alternative interpretation. In parables, the message is often carried by the third person in a group of three. Jesus’ audience would have known that and he usually preached to slaves, so we can expect that they would have picked up on this pretty easy. This parable is also at the end of his ministry, so what could be going on here is a warning of what it is going to be like when he is gone. If you speak up against your cruel and wicked master, you’re gonna get it.

In the end, I don’t think the parable gives us enough information to know for sure what it means. If the master was indeed wicked, then the third slave had a right and perhaps a duty to speak up. That doesn’t make the other two wrong. If he was tough but fair, then the lesson is that life is hard, and you should do your best with what you have. Maybe it was intended to be somewhat ambiguous, deciding if you should keep your job even though conditions are poor, or quit as a matter of principle even though there will be consequences for your lifestyle and your family, is not an easy decision. Making that decision in a real life situation today is no easier than attempting to figure out what someone from 2,000 years ago, speaking in a language that is no longer used, was trying to say.

For the youngsters here, I want to be real clear that this does not apply to all jobs. If your boss tells you to do something, you do it if you want to get paid. It is not illegal for a boss to be mean. There are boundaries that they can’t cross, and if they do, they should be reported.

I’m not suggesting that everyone join in on a giant sit down strike. We have laws today that are much better than what slaves had in Roman times. To apply this parable to today, what I hear it saying is, we need to work together to build a just and peaceful world where workers are respected, and capital investments protected and given a reasonable return. It may mean protesting actions by corporations, or thinking about what jobs we choose to apply for, or how we conduct ourselves in meetings. It may be as simple as starting an office paper recycling program.

When applying theology like this, the authors of Liberation Theology also warn against possible pitfalls:

Don’t forget the mysticism
The universe is vast and unknowable and we can learn from even the tiniest things that are happening right at our feet. We have our committees and our spreadsheets and phone bills and we need to be doing all of that, but we can’t forget that there are things we can’t control.

This is not the next thing to franchise.
I hope this does not come across as something that I am selling. A movement such as this must acknowledge other religions and other theologies. This is a movement that will end, and disperse into the world. In many ways, it already has.

Don’t forget celebration, joy and song while working on technical issues.
I think that is a good queue for a song. Let’s celebrate our two slaves that put their talents to good use with “This Little Light of Mine”

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