Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Last Sunday, our little group of Mississippi workers worshipped at Solomon Chapel AME church in Cleveland, MS. It’s always the highlight of my yearly trips to Mississippi, for lots of reasons. I admire Solomon Chapel’s pastor, Dr. Glenell Lee-Pruitt. She’s a powerful force. And she makes me feel powerful every time I see her. Then there’s the two hour service, with singing and swaying, and preaching, and praying. And there’s the simple joy of worshipping some place where I have no responsibilities. I don’t have to try to remember any details, don’t have to fix something that came out wrong, don’t have to wonder if the microphones are working or if I’ll offend someone in some unintentional way. I can just worship. This year, when Pastor Glenell realized that both Rob Grabill and Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain are in seminary, she asked them each to participate, reading scripture and praying the opening prayer. That was also especially nice for me, since I am so proud of both of these dear friends and their respective paths to ministry. And there is the experience of really fine African American worship – a style of worship that feeds my spirit like nothing else.
While I was sitting there last Sunday, I don’t know when exactly, but I began to think about our Lenten study book, Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin Meyers, and about progressive Christianity and how fundamentally true and right and helpful I think it is, and how accurately it describes my theology and my personal faith perspective. And I was thinking about how religion is being talked about in the Republican campaign for president, and how President Obama’s Christian faith is, yet again, being questioned, and about how religion is such a powerful weapon being used to justify war and women’s subjugation and discrimination against gays and lesbians. All these things were just swirling around my mind. I think it might have been while Margaret was reading the story of the transfiguration, and knowing that Richard Crocker was here preaching here, to you, from that same story we were listening to there, a world away, and it just hit me, a new insight, a little bit of clarity I had never considered before.
All across northern Mississippi there are hundreds of very small, African American churches. Some of them are just tiny little white clapboard buildings with something of a steeple, sitting out on the edge of a muddy field, and others of them are lovely brick edifices with sanctuaries that can be made into multi-purpose rooms at the drop of a hat. A good many of these small churches are not affiliated with any particular denomination, some, like Solomon Chapel, are African Methodist Episcopal, and a good many of them are Missionary Baptist. There are strong cultural differences between them and loyalties that run deep.
Across Mississippi, nearly every one of those churches can easily trace their origins to the time of slavery. Christian theology and worship practices, as they emerged in slave communities, were grounded in the oral tradition of story-telling and singing. There was no study of Greek or Hebrew, no ecclesiologies, no learned scholars appointed by bishops to be the pastors of those congregations of worshippers. But there were stories, stories about a very brave Hebrew man who faced down an oppressor and led his people out of slavery. He was helped along by a God who hated slavery, and so sent assistance in the form of diseases and locusts, and when that didn’t work, that God who hated slavery so much killed all the first born boy babies of the oppressors, and then, even then, when the oppressors chased the running, escaping slaves, God opened a way across the Red Sea and when the slaves had made it safely across, that God closed up the way and the crashing water drowned all the chasing armies. Those freed slaves wandered for forty years before they found the place God had prepared for them.
And then there was a little baby, born years later, in the back of an old shed where the animals were kept, whose mother was so young and so poor. And that baby brought kings to their knees. When he grew up, he knew the time had come to free his people from the Roman oppressors, only this time, his people had more to lose. They had made friends with the enemies, some of them. They had figured out how to get along – just, you know, get along – stay quiet, do their own little rituals and worship in their own beautiful temple. But that man couldn’t live with just getting along. He wouldn’t bow down to anyone but God. And he loved the hurt ones, the raped ones, the sick and dirty and grieving and crazy ones. He loved them. But you just can’t do that kind of loving without drawing notice to yourself, without threatening those who were trying to just get along. So they turned him in to the oppressors who killed him.
You know the story, the wonderful, powerful, magnificent story that there is a God who hates slavery, of every kind, who loves every small and insignificant , needy person. You know the story about that Messiah who was humble and kind, whose hands could lift you up and wipe away your sins and make you free and whole and strong, even when you feel trapped and weak and victimized. You know it is the story of hope.
So, here’s the insight I had last Sunday. If you were a slave, hearing those stories, if you were a woman hearing them, if you were a person who lived day after day shamed, or chained, or afraid to make too much noise, you would hear those stories, and they would make your heart burn within you. You would believe, you would hope and dream and pray that the God they described, the God who hates slavery of every kind was real, and that the Jesus you knew could help you survive the diseases of poverty, and drug addiction, and AIDS, and diabetes and high blood pressure loved you, and that the Moses who rose up out of nothing, who had even murdered a man, could lead an enslaved people into freedom. You would understand how those stories were about you. In other words, you would know the difference between what is and what could be.
Why, you’re wondering, was that such a new insight? Well, I’ll tell you. It suddenly became clear to me that those who are closest to the circumstances of the enslaved Israelites, those who know what it’s like to live under oppression, those who experience betrayal and degradation and demeaning attitudes, those who are confined and contained and controlled by people with power, hear these stories with hearts starved for their truth without ever stewing over whether they are, literally, true. While those who are closest to the centers of power, Egypt, Rome, Wall Street, those who breathe the air of privilege, those who feel strong by surrounding themselves with people who they can make weak, those who make decisions for others who are apparently incapable of making decisions for themselves, those who do not know what it’s like to live on processed, breaded, deep fried meat byproducts, those who have never had to stop taking medications because they can’t afford them, those are the ones who 1) dismiss the stories of our faith as quaint but not related to real life, or 2) contort them and twist them into reinforcement for maintaining oppression, or, 3) turn them into a litmus test by demanding that others believe them as facts, rather than trust them as truth.
The season of Lent is upon us, marked by this story about Jesus, how, following his baptism but before taking up his public and turbulent ministry, went away for a time. The story tells us he was in the wilderness 40 days, reminding us of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. The story tells us that he endured temptations visited upon him by Satan and that angels waited on him. The story tells us that it was a time of preparation, of testing, of getting clear and strong and ready to preach good news to the captives, the oppressed, the victimized, the enslaved, the poor, the women, the ordinary, the wounded, the weary, and the worn.
We don’t know what really happened to him during those 40 days. We don’t even know if he went away at all, for forty days or four. The gospel writers wrote stories to help us understand who Jesus was, how he thought, why he was so important and so dangerous. But there was no one watching him during that time – no eyewitness reporters. No where, in all the gospels, do we read any sentence of Jesus’ that begins with “when I was in the wilderness...” And yet, those forty days have become a powerful metaphor for spiritual preparation, for self-challenge, for individual struggle, strengthening and renewal and preparation for the harsh, dangerous road ahead. Jesus confronted powers and principalities. He made visible the invisible people others had ignored or, more accurately, abandoned. He criticized the very institution that had shaped him. He was despised and adored, honored and betrayed, and he was unjustly accused, unfairly tried and violently executed.
Does it matter, how long he was gone? Does it matter whether the temptations to avoid the cost of his ministry appeared to him in the form of Satan? Does it matter that he didn’t eat anything for a long period of time? Does it matter that the story of his wilderness preparation looks a lot like a Native American vision quest? Does it matter that before every planned confrontation engaged by Martin Luther King, Jr. was preceded by four-day retreats of preparation? Does it matter that Jesus put the temptation to join the powerful behind him? Does it matter?
The details of the facts of the stories don’t matter very much. That’s what I realized last Sunday as I was worshipping at Solomon Chapel. What does matter is why he did it, and for whom he did it, and how he was strong enough and loving enough, and brave enough to do it. And sometimes you have to go to the places and the people that are far, far away from the seats of power to remember. Amen.