Enslaved to sin.

That we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

This we know, that our old self was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The catechism of enslavement includes rape, forced procreation and forced impregnation and also, forced miscarriages and infanticide. I charge you to take a pilgrimage to the Whitney Plantation and tread upon the sacred ground in the Field of Angels where the bodies of enslaved babies are interred. In the case of the American and Atlantic basin atrocity, enslavement scripted forced illiteracy and indoctrination with bastardized white supremacist theology, including Bibles missing the book of Exodus. Enslavement, is an active word describing a whole host of practices, ideologies and theology, where “slavery,” a noun, exists as a untroubled and unexamined fait accompli.

Slavery and enslavement are ugly and call for ugly words. Yet the language of slavery pervades the Scriptures, including on the lips of Jesus. Perhaps that is why so many in the Church gloss over these words when they appear in the biblical text and some refuse to translate them for what they are so, our Bibles are full of servants and handmaidens and not the enslaved. Thus the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary becomes the “woman servant of God” rather than the slave woman of God as recorded. A distinction with a difference because servants, even when treated badly, are employees who can come and go but, the enslaved are legally property. A reality with which Paul was very much aware as a Roman citizen. Indeed, he infamously called for one self-liberated formerly enslaved person to return himself to the person who claimed ownership of him in the hopes his so called owner’s Christian faith would lead to him relinquishing his claim. For Paul the property claim was what mattered. The formerly enslaved man had no right to be free in his theology. Paul was enslaved to sin. Paul and thus scripture supported and maintained the engines of enslavement, making it easy for his American theological descendants to wrap themselves in his mantle as Christian slaveholders.

Out of one side of his mouth he said, There is no longer male or female, slave or free, Greek or Jew. And out the other, any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head. And, there is no longer Greek or Jew but Paul forced Timothy to be circumcised as an adult. He didn’t like the way he was managing his sexual and reproductive health so he used the power he had over him to make him conform to his religious convictions. There is no longer slave or free but, that runaway slave needs to go back into slavery.

For Paul, and for that matter for Jesus, slavery was not just a metaphor. It was the economic engine of the empire in which they lived, Paul as a citizen and Jesus as an occupied person. The enslaved were all around them, the first followers of the way of Jesus. And some of the first leaders of the Jesus movement. They knew, more than Paul knew, that to be enslaved was deeply degrading, dehumanizing, debilitating and deforming. The opposite of life and life abundant promised by Jesus and his gospel.

And so it was that Paul could see the horrors of slavery and sincerely wish, hope and, pray that we might no longer be enslaved to sin. Because slavery, enslavement, selling and buying and abusing human bodies was such a terrible and, for the most part, inescapable fate. Paul looked at the enslaved around him and saw a metaphor, but not an opportunity for liberation. And he was not alone. The same holds true for Jesus, as hard as it may be to think or hear.

When the stalwarts of the faith – including the author and originator of our faith – treat enslavement as though they cannot imagine a world without it, as though, because that’s the way it always was, as though it were not a completely morally bankrupt ethical failure that the Church needed to invest its energy, authority and burgeoning power into abolishing, it’s easy to conclude that the world is broken beyond repair. If the Church couldn’t figure out that slavery was an unconscionable evil then how can we possibly expect its contemporary descendants to treat every human person as fully created in the image of God with the full reservoir of ethical and moral competency to make her own decisions about her cis or trans woman’s body? How can we expect the Church to take responsibility for and begin to reform the white supremacist legacy it has bequeathed to a world in which its cultural heirs use its legacy to eradicate the black and brown and Asiah and Jewish bodies they’ve been taught pollute their heritage, one mass shooting at a time?

Enslaved to sin.

That we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

This we know, that our old self was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

Sin is perhaps the easier of the pair, slavery and sin; simply make a list of all the things everyone else does that you think are wrong and there you will have the most commonly operating definition for sin. It is such an abused and misused word that it almost holds no value except as a weapon. It was supposed to mean “missing the mark of God’s expectation for us.” And yes, some of those expectations can be found on lists configured as rules and laws but they are only the framework of a tapestry in which our love for God is interwoven with her love for us producing the gorgeous colors and sumptuous textures of a life that is pleasing to God. A life, that according to the apostle, is yet, enslaved to sin. A redeemed life, a crucified life that is non-the-less enslaved. Paul left letters and lists of what constituted sin in his context; you can read them. The question for us is, what is the sin to which the Church is enslaved today? And, who do we, in our capacity as the Church, enslave?  

What are the “it’s always been that way” structures whose ethical consequences we don’t even consider because we’ve been conditioned to live with and perpetrate a certain degree of degradation? What are the gender constructs, class constructs and racial constructs that prevent the Church from living fully into its resurrected life? What are the power constructs that keep the Church enslaved and enslaving?

At some points in time, there could be a literal accounting of enslaved persons owned by the Church, its clergy, benefactors and, members. Parishes, the occasional college, university or seminary and, individual persons and families have now made some accounting. The Church at various levels has made some acts of contrition and, we are just beginning to acknowledge our sins in incarcerating Native children to forcibly integrate them into white supremacist Christianity using the same liturgy of death and violence lavished upon enslaved Africans and other Native peoples. But no real accounting, repentance, reparation or reconciliation has been made in our time for the Church’s fundamental disregard of the bodies and liberty of people simply because they were not white. Repentance without reparation, without doing the difficult and costly work of making right what was and remains so very wrong, is merely apology. Repentance requires reparation.

At this point, if not before, I imagine some of you are wondering where is the women’s, womanist, feminist sermon from this newfangled Women’s Lectionary? This is not the sermon I was expecting. The androcentrism and patriarchy in the Church, its scriptures and its lectionaries do not occur in isolation. They are part of a larger web of power structures. Power that ensnares and enslaves the Church. A Women’s Lectionary provides an opportunity to look at those systems in a new way whether the texts are explicitly about women as in our first lesson and gospel or, rendered invisible in other translations of the psalms though they, along with non-binary persons, are the very image of the God who is being extolled. A Women’s Lectionary should force us to read with all the marginalized characters in and out of the text, to shift our focus from identifying with the structures of power to identifying with those who are ground down beneath them.  

A Women’s Lectionary does much more than ask where are the women although sometimes that is the very question that needs to be asked as in the case of our epistle. Where are the women disciples in the epistles outside of Romans 16 and a pastoral letter about church conflict? Where is Mary Magdalene? Where is the Blessed Virgin? Where are the stories about the women pastors, apostles and bishops in whose homes these early Jesus communities were meeting? Where are their sermons and pastoral epistles? Why are there so many fewer women in the Acts of the Apostles than Luke?

In too many sermons, an epistle about sin, if read or preached with regard to women, would construct women and our bodies and our choices about our bodies as the occasion of sin. The perception that women are a thing to be controlled, to be mastered, to be dominated is as old as, if not the first humans, or the first stories about the first humans, then as the first interpretations of those stories. When we as Church tell our stories through the women preserved in the Scriptures, the women hidden in the Scriptures and the women missing from the Scriptures, we tell a different set of stories. And we tell the familiar stories in different and unfamiliar ways.

Interpretations of the Mary and Martha, Martha and Mary, story often focus on “a woman’s place.” What passes for liberating readings in some contexts is saying that a woman’s place is not just in the kitchen but also at the feet of Jesus. Missing from these less than revolutionary readings is the question of why it is imagined that women have a “place” when men don’t. The whole world – and even the whole cosmos according to the men who kept women from originally going into space – is their place. Meanwhile, we have gender norms embedded in job descriptions and health insurance that punish women for being of reproductive age.

We are still trying to do Church in the midst of enslaving paradigms. Our Church was birthed in a world that did not believe all people had the right to be free. Too many people took and take that for gospel. The enslaved, the ones that no one asks, have always known that they should be free. The oppressed have always known that they should be able to stand without a boot or knee on their neck or womb. The ones who are always at the margin of the story are the ones we should listen for in the Scriptures; their gospel is a liberating gospel. So why is it that the resurrected life portrayed in the Scriptures looks so much like the unredeemed life on the other side of the cross for women and the enslaved?

In truth, here is no vision of complete liberation from enslavement in the Scriptures. The liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery freed them to go forward and enslave the Gibeonites and other Canaanites and sometimes, sell their own daughters into slavery. Jesus said that the one whom the Son sets free is free indeed yet he never spoke against or made any attempt to dismantle human chattel slavery. He even raised a child from the dead and sent him back to his enslaver. Yet somehow, the world began to change. The enslaved knew that they were born to be free no matter what systems or structures were in place and no matter what scriptures rightly or wrongly interpreted called for their captivity. And they set themselves free because we are not limited to the theological imaginations and limitations of our ancestors or our Scriptures. Women asserted their autonomy and burned for it. Gay, trans and gender queer folk assert the sanctity of their lives and loves in spite of the enslaving theology of too many churches invoking the scriptures.

That’s been a hard fought lesson. Fought on the battlefields of science, over a vision of planets revolving around the sun rather than a sun that moves across the sky before falling off the edge of the flat earth. Then the battles were over evolution and creation and now people are arguing about the sentience of cells, relying on medieval manuscripts and mistranslations of secondary witnesses. But along the way, some of us figured out that people should be free. In this world, not just in the next.

There is liberation in the gospel even though it is sometimes obscured by the structures of power that benefit from holding people captive. There is also a story in and between the lines of and behind the text we hold so dear that points to a liberation that not even the authors and editors of scripture were able to see clearly or, see their way to record. Jesus was a rabbi, he would have never wanted us to cling to the letters and syntax of these texts as though they were his very body and blood but rather, his spirit and the Spirit of God, blow through them, ruffling and disturbing them and permitting us to read new truths in and out of them and, not lose sight of the ancient stories that are also part of our shared heritage. Paul’s prayer that we might no longer be enslaved to sin is really a prayer that we might be free. Free in a way that he did not live to see.

If we are to be free, truly free a not the blasphemous freedom the Episcopal Church offered the enslaved that was only on the other side of the grave, but if we are to be free here and now, then we can be neither enslaved nor enslaver. We cannot continue to maintenance the structures of enslavement that dehumanize our mothers and brothers, sisters and siblings, fathers and friends, queerkin and and transkin.

In order to be free we have to tell the truth about the things we’ve been conditioned, not only not to speak about, but also not to examine too closely: Where does our money come from, on whose blood and bones were our buildings built, whose children were sold to provide the investments into the oldest companies in our portfolios? How do we get free of that blood on our hands? It won’t be without cost or pain. We have to get free of Church as we know it. We cannot hang on to all of our institutions and traditions and change the systems that fundamentally enslave with and through them.

This we know, that our old self was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The body of sin, every vestige, every tentacle, must be uprooted, cut off, burned with Holy Ghost fire and destroyed to rise no more. Do you want to be free Church? That is the question that Jesus asks when calling us forth from the rot of the grave. Our failings and frailties were crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed. It is up to us to destroy the systems that enslave. For we are the ones who keep sacrificing lives to give them life. Enslaved and enslaving or liberated and liberating. Only one is consistent with the undying resurrected life of Christ. Amen.