2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
I read the Gospel and preach at 23 minutes in.
In the Name of God who is Majesty, Mercy and Mystery +
For freedom Christ has set us free. But we are not all free. We live in a world that does not want us all to be free, that actively conspires to take and keep some of us captive and, keep other folk from getting free. The people of Haiti are not free because Western nations made them pay for their audacity in fighting for their freedom and successfully throwing off the yoke of slavery. They have been punished ever since for getting their freedom on their own terms. Punished through crippling financial sanctions including having US Marines steal the gold reserves of the nation, perpetually undercutting their currency and financial stability. The people of Haiti are not free of what we have done to them and when they try to immigrate here, they are put in the back of the immigration bus behind other immigrants (often with lighter complexions) sometimes from the same part of the world. We are not all free.
We live in a nation whose founding sacred text says, “All men are created equal.” The Native men from whom the lands of this nation were wrested and who are called “merciless savages” in the Declaration of Independence that some of you will be reading in just another week, were not counted as equal. Listen for it and take note if it has been silently removed, altering the record of our history, pretending we were not who we have always been. All men are created equal but the enslaved African men like those George Washington held captive, including a cook named Hercules Posey, who got so excited listening to the conversations about freedom and liberty, liberated himself because he realized all those white men talking about freedom and liberty and justice for all didn’t mean him or his people. Or their womenfolk. He understood that if it does not lead to liberation from all of this world’s shackles, then, it is not freedom even if it is as American as apple pie.
All men are created equal… Even allowing for sexist patriarchal language, that sacred text that holds secular, civil, canonical status didn’t mean all humankind by “all men.” Women were not considered even remotely competent to perform the basic duties of a citizen. And by women I mean what they meant when they ridiculed the notion of women’s enfranchisement, white women, because there was no consideration given for the possibility of native women or black women as the equals of the white men who defined what it was to essentially be human and entitled to “justice for all.” And yes, black women later marched with white women for suffrage but the part of the story that is not told often is that black women’s participation was rejected at every turn including having to walk at the back of the protest marches when they were allowed to march at all. And then our vote was sacrificed in a racist power-play to keep black men from voting when “women,” got the vote. When after blood, sweat, tears, public protest and police violence, we all had the right to vote, we discovered again that in spite of having been created equal we were not being treated as equals. And a small Jewish woman spent the better part of her adult life making sure that women would be treated equal according to the language and values of a text we in civil society hold as sacred. She understood that if it wasn’t liberation for all it was not liberation. God bless Ruth Bader Ginsburg and on her behalf, we bless the one true Judge, Baruch dayan emet.
We who are Christian have another sacred text. It proclaims: For freedom Christ has set us free. But are we all free in this country at the present moment? Who among us is not free and what are we doing about it?
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Paul tells the fledgling church to stand firm in the freedom that Christ has purchased for us with his body and blood. But Paul is a member of a slaveholding society. He is in effect telling the enslaved whom he recognizes as his sisters and brothers, friends and kin in Christ, to stand firm in the freedom of Christ while you bend under the yoke of slavery in your actual literal every-day life.
For Paul, and for that matter for Jesus, slavery was not just a metaphor. It was the economic engine of the empire in the world in which they lived, Paul as a citizen and Jesus as an occupied person. The enslaved were all around them, including among the first followers of the Way of Jesus. And, as 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.
Paul could see the horrors of slavery and sincerely wish, hope and, pray that we might no longer be enslaved to sin in Romans (6:6) and, that we do not submit again to a yoke of slavery in Galatians (5:1), because slavery, 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 unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg who he might’ve told not to speak in public before men and not to lecture men on matters of the law, not an opportunity for human liberation in this crucified and crucifying world. And he was not alone.
Slavery in the Scriptures is not just a metaphor. Enslavement is a series of offenses rooted in depraved theology that fails to honor the very image of God in another human person. Enslavement includes every act of physical, sexual and, psychological violence and torture humanity has ever conceived. Its liturgies are mutilation, starvation and privation, producing malnourished, broken and deteriorated bodies that die before their time; some almost mercifully murdered. For the survivors, fractured families, broken bones, broken homes and broken hearts. The catechism of enslavement includes reproductive slavery, rape, forced procreation and forced impregnation and also, forced miscarriages and infanticide. And some still defend it. Some minimize it and some want to erase it and responsibility for its legacy. 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 white Jesus and Bibles missing the book of Exodus and, Episcopal baptisms with the language of freedom removed from the baptismal covenant.
Slavery and enslavement are ugly and call for ugly words and pervade the Scriptures and some refuse to translate them for what they are so, our Bibles are full of servants and handmaidens so we do not have to confront the enslaved. 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.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Freedom with carve outs for acceptable disenfranchisement, degradation and discrimination is not freedom. Freedom that does not free is not freedom. None are free until all are free. I know it’s hard. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to do your part.
Yet 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 or their non-binary womb? 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 Jewish and queer bodies they’ve been taught pollute their heritage, one mass shooting at a time?
Whatever Gospel we might hear from Paul is undercut by his complicity with and support of slavery. 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 the formerly enslaved man had no right to be free unless another man like him, another free man, gave him his freedom. Paul, and thus scripture, supported and maintained the architecture of enslavement, making it easy for his American theological descendants to wrap themselves in his mantle as Christian slaveholders just as Elisha wrapped himself in Elijah’s mantle. This is the reality of our founding documents and their original intent. It’s why Frederick Douglass famously wrote, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Consider that assigned reading.
It is only possible to deprive another person of their freedom, of their liberty, of their human and civil rights, when you don’t see them as fully human in the same way that you see yourself. That is the yoke of slavery under which we still live in this country and in this world. Who we believe is fully human and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of justice is demonstrated not with bold patriotic assertions but in how we treat them, how we legislate against them, how we enable their persecution and, look the other way as they are slaughtered. When seen in that light, this country does not treat women as fully human, it does not treat gay and trans kids with the full measure of human dignity and it does not consider the holocaust of black trans women’s lives to be a humanitarian crisis.
We need a miracle. We need a God who is not constrained by the systems and powers of this world. We need the God the Psalmist promises will hear our cry. We need the God of Elijah, the God of miracles, the God for whom the doors between heaven and earth are never closed. We need the God who prepares us for the work she calls us to do. That’s what the story about Elijah’s mantle is all about. It’s not about a magical artifact and it’s not Doctor Strange’s sentient cape. The story is about the fact that the power of God that Elisha saw at work in Elijah and all his miracles – calling fire from the sky, raising the dead, multiplying food and oil and predicting the future – was still at work in the world and still at work with and in him. Just like the Pentecost power of the Holy Spirit is still with and in us.
The disciples of Jesus knew that power and had access to it. But they were not planning on using it to liberate or free anybody. When confronted with an enduring cultural and religious conflict with their Samaritan kin, their impulse was to use their power for the harm of those who were different from them, whose theology they did not accept. One of Elisha’s miracles was cut out of today’s first reading – I didn’t make this lectionary – some little boys told him to go away, get out of town and called him baldhead and he called down two she bears to eat them up. (This is a whole ‘nother sermon.)
All that power and none of it being used to dismantle the systems that keep people enslaved. In their world, slavery itself. In ours, enslaving systemic poverty arising from institutional racism like red lining. And, ecological racism, governments not planting trees in black neighborhoods but instead planting industrial sites that produce asthma inducing toxins. Incarcerating enslavement resulting from intentional practices like stop and frisk searches in black and Latino neighborhoods for marijuana but not inwhite ones where the usage rate is higher and, disparate penalties for cocaine products based on the form likely to be used by one race over another. And for some of us, the law itself is enslaving. Slavery was legal. Race based segregation was legal. The miseducation of black children in deliberately under-resourced schools that were separate and unequal was legal and making a comeback. Discrimination against interracial couples was legal. Discrimination against LGBTIA folk is still legal. Second class citizenship for, first white women, and then black and brown and Asian and Native women was legal. And in some parts of our country it still is and will be again.
Following the example of Jesus, you have heard that it was written: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. But I say unto you: Liberate yourself and everyone around you who is not free. Do not just not submit yourself to the yoke of slavery. Do not put the yoke of slavery on the neck of any woman, girl, trans child or adult or, man. We are not limited to the racist sexist virsion of our founding American documents or the impoverished imaginations and depraved morals of our slaveholding founders. Indeed, just as Elisha performed twice as many miracles as Elijah and Jesus said that we would do greater things than those he showed us when he was on this earth, we are not limited to the Iron Age theology and morality which undergirds the Scriptures.
So if the folk of this nation continue to choose slavery over freedom, in the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.” We will not rest because we will be working with the tools our ancestors have left behind for us. We will work with a vision that sees farther than theirs that’s why we eliminated chattel slavery and the monarchy. We will be working with the power of the Holy Spirit poured into the world into and through us. We will work in the Name of the God who sends down chariots of fire from the heavens. We will work in the Name of the God whose perfect freedom has no exceptions.
We will work in the Name of the God of Miracles, the God of Elijah. The God who is both on the fire and in the whirlwind and with her people on the road to Jerusalem. That same God is at work with those who know that freedom is neither a flag nor an American French fry, who know that none of us are free until all of us are and, who understand that Jesus surrendered his freedom for our liberty. How dare we enslave ourselves or each other. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Amen.