Abolitionists 2016

We’re going to start with seems like a happy little story about great faith, and we’re going to make it really complicated.

But we’re going to make it complicated because that is what we have to do to be faithful to the Holy Spirit.

Let’s review what happens in our gospel story today. A centurion has a slave that becomes very ill. He sends Jewish elders to Jesus to testify to his good character, that he is in fact a significant financial benefactor of the Jewish community, and ask that Jesus heal his slave.

He says that he is unworthy for Jesus to come under his roof, and that he understands how power works.

Jesus is amazed at his faith and heals the slave.

Hooray, everyone lives happily ever after!

Well, everyone lives happily ever after if we ignore the elephant in the room. The man who was healed is still enslaved!

Luke doesn’t seem to care that slavery is a basic fact of life in his society, in fact, it was so normal that it wouldn’t have occurred to him to care.

But we have to care. We have a moral responsibility to care.

We have to care because it is not normal in our country today, because we have a deep and twisted past in this nation around slavery, and because it is still an all too regular fact of life in other countries around the world.

In fact, I can’t really say that slavery is not normal in America today, because the commercial lanes of human trafficking are alive and humming right here in Indiana.

As strange as it is to have to stand here in a pulpit in 2016 and say slavery is a problem that we need to deal with, it is.

And here we have a Biblical text in which Jesus seems to offer no protest to the institution of slavery.

He heals the enslaved man, but he does not free the enslaved man.

What do we do with that?

It will be no surprise to you that people for generations in America before the Civil War used this story to justify slavery.

“Look! Jesus thinks a slaveholder is the most faithful person he’s found in Israel!” they would say.

The verses in the Bible justifying slavery are all too easy to find.

Ephesians 6: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”

Colossians 3: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.”

Titus 2: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.”

And then of course we have the Letter of Philemon, where a slave ran away from his master to follow Christ. Paul converted him to the faith and then sent him straight back to his slave owner to continue his life enslaved.

And these are the words and deeds of the New Testament! These are people who are supposed to be following Jesus!

So what do we do?

How do we grapple with the reality that this is what the Bible says and we straightforwardly say it is wrong and we don’t believe in it?

This is where some people long for the comfort of Biblical literalism.

It is a clear, black and white standard. If the Bible says it, it’s true, end of story.

The listener is absolved of any responsibility for gray areas or his or her own moral discernment.

The listener does not have to deal with the uncomfortable reality that some things in the Bible were human-inspired instead of God-inspired.

Remember last week when we talked about uncertainty?

Our Anglican hermeneutic demands that we step boldly into uncertainty and bring our moral conscience with us.

What’s a hermeneutic? It’s a lens through we which view scripture and faith.

And we place scripture, tradition, and human reason and experience as our three pillars of discernment for God’s will.

That is how Christian abolitionists before the Civil War found the courage and the inspiration to step out and say, “I don’t care if the Bible says, ‘Slaves obey your masters,’ slavery is wrong!”

The concept that we’re grappling with here today is obedience.

It’s not a word that our modern American culture places much value on, but we as Christians promise to be obedient to Jesus Christ, to follow his will and take him as our Lord and Savior.

And as part of that discipleship, we seek to be obedient to scripture and the teaching of the apostles.

What do we do when their culture so bounds their communication to us that it warps our understanding of God’s will?

Or, to say it another way, what do we do when they teach us bad stuff because they don’t know any better?

The most important thing to remember is that there is a higher obedience than obedience to any writings, words, orders or teachings from human beings.

That obedience is to the will of God, to the love of Jesus Christ, to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture will not tell us what those are in their fullness.

Scripture, a great deal of scripture, will point us in that direction.

It’s our best tool for getting to know what other people have found out about God.

But blind obedience to scripture is simply shoving away moral responsibility onto ancient authors who were doing the best they could with what they had.

The sad result was unjust structures of society like slavery that were perpetuated for generations by people using those very scriptures to uphold them.

Slavery was and is a dirty rotten system, and there are a lot of dirty rotten systems we participate in every day: racism, sexism, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia, the list goes on.

It gets overwhelming very quickly, and we feel helpless.

We no longer have the comfortable crutch of blind obedience to scripture.

How can we find the higher obedience of faithfulness to the will and leading of God, especially when everything is so tangled up in our own power and comfort here on earth?

Well, we can take our cue, as always, from Jesus.

At first it hurts to see that Jesus does not free the enslaved man in this story.

But let’s take ourselves back to what Jesus was accomplishing in his short time on earth.

He had three years to change the world, and he did it.

But he couldn’t create a perfect utopia in three years, he wasn’t even trying to do that.

He was trying to teach humanity that God loves us, and because God loves us, we don’t have to do these terrible things like enslave and beat and starve and kill each other.

This was the deeper work of planting the seed of healing and life in the human soul that would one day enable, generations later, people to stand up and say, “No more slavery. It is over.”

And it was over, legally, but not in reality.

There are people in Indiana and all over our country today who are victims of human trafficking, who are held for manual labor or sex work against their will, with no pay, and no way out.

Jesus couldn’t change it all in three short years.

He left a great deal of the work to us as his disciples.

Think about the courage it took for the original American abolitionists to stand up and say, “The Bible is wrong about slavery.”

That was in a day and time when the Bible was viewed as the final source of authority and truth.

Saying that slavery was wrong and contrary to the will of God was as seemingly crazy as saying today, “Well, I don’t care that all of the scientific evidence says the earth travels around the sun, I’m saying that’s not the case.”

This is the higher obedience. Not obedience to the fickle trends of human preference, and not obedience to the literal interpretation of ancient texts, but obedience to the blend of scripture, tradition, and experience that truly invites the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We are to be obedient to prayer, to listening, to questioning, to community, to sticking together when we disagree, to paying a price for speaking against injustice and power.

We are trying to be obedient to the long arc of justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. calls it, and that is slow and even sometimes painful work.

Look at Jesus. He couldn’t save that one enslaved man from his slavery, but he could heal him, and he could even celebrate the faith of a slaveholder. That is remarkable.

Jesus saw injustice clearly and called it out, but he still loved the perpetrators of injustice, and he could see the humanity waiting and ready to be redeemed within them.

That is how he sees us.

We are most often blind to the systems of oppression that we participate in, and we send to Jesus, telling him of our faith and asking him for what we need.

And he gives it to us.

He gives us grace and healing and mercy, and does not destroy us for the ways in which we participate in injustice.

He even heals the very people we are oppressing.

And so it is more important than ever that we seek a higher obedience, an obedience to where God is trying to lead us, even and especially when it is uncomfortable.

Our gospel says that Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s faith—perhaps he is amazed that someone who doesn’t have any problem with having slaves still has spiritual potential!

But that is us, and that gives us hope.

We’ve found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of the slaveholder in our gospel today.

We know some of us by virtue of our gender, many of us by virtue of our race or sexual orientation, and all of us by virtue of being wealthy Americans are at the top of system that results in people being held in literal slavery all around the world in 2016.

We have found ourselves disobedient to the commandment to love our neighbor, and thereby disobedient to the commandment to love God.

But we are also the enslaved person in the story.

We are enslaved to systems and forces much larger than ourselves that trap us into perpetuating injustice, and we are enslaved by our own basic human impulses to comfort and security and power.

And what does Jesus bring to the enslaved man in this story?

He brings him healing!

Jesus is not going to come tear up our entire society and force us to live rightly, but he will heal us of our fear and our weakness so that we can work for those changes ourselves.

What is our job?

To be obedient to that transformation.

We are to open ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable to Jesus rearranging our priorities, to giving up our old idols, to listening for the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through our old categories of how things should be done.

We are called to a higher obedience, not an obedience to rules or hierarchies or texts, but an obedience to creativity, to possibility, to love.

We’re all slaves and we’re all slaveholders, but our obedience to love is what moves the whole human community forward one tiny increment at a time.

When you look at how far we have to go, remember how far we have come.

On the day he healed that enslaved man, Jesus dreamed of a day when there would be no more slavery of any kind, physical or spiritual.

And Jesus can work through anyone to help that start to happen.

How do we know?

Even St. Paul, the old slavery justifier himself, knew it when he plugged into the Holy Spirit.

He spoke the truth in Galatians 5: “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”



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