Liberation into Life
A post- Pentecost sermon related to Psalm 146:5-9
The person whose help is the God of Jacob--
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God--
is truly happy!
6 God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
7 who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
8 The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
9 The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician, an elder, and an author known by many for her books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. She shares the story of a story, a story of her grandfather, a Jewish mystic, who told her on her 4th birthday a story of the birthday of the world from the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystic text. As the ancient story goes, there first was only the Divine Presence as the Holy Darkness, the ein sof. Then this Holy Darkness birthed a great ray of light…. But, as she tells it, then there was an accident and the light was shattered and scattered into countless shards which fell into all things and all events, though deeply hidden. Humanity is here to find that light, to lift it up and restore the innate unity and wholeness of the world. This great project of purpose is known in Judaism in Hebrew as tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Tikkun olam is a collective task in which all humanity is called to participate. Tikkun olam, the restoration of the world. Beautiful.
Woven into the stories of humanity and even into our some of our Scriptures are stories that forget the original and ultimate unity of Life, and therefore the unity of humanity, the unity of Creation, and instead act out a story of separation, an illusion of separation where the unlikeness, the differences, become primary and set the stage for preferences, ranking, and suspicion and put us on the road to de-humanizing or objectifying the other or even ourselves. We forget who we are as a part of a great circle, and what the world is as a whole.
Indeed, there are many expressions of the illusion of separation and several are mentioned in our text for this morning, Psalm 146. Did you hear them mentioned? Oppression, imprisonment, hunger, burden, estrangement.
This is where God and where the activity and invitation of the Divine come in to meet these degraded and life-draining conditions with something else, with the antidote from the consequences of separated living: liberation. Liberation back into freedom and dignity of being a Divine spark of Creation. Liberation into the enlivening connection, blessing, and responsibility of Life’s unity as we serve and honor that of which we are a part. Liberation leads to Life.
Here’s another ancient Jewish story to help us along.
The water started at his ankles, but then he went further in.
Up to his knees……. and then thighs….. and then waist.
Behind him, his people stood watching, curious and anxious. And behind them, close enough to see in the distance, the Pharoah of Egypt and his troops in pressing pursuit.
And here he was, Nachson ben Aminidav, walking into the water. You see he had been told that God would act, that there was a way through, even though there seemed no way. Despite the inspiring victory of his people leaving their slave camps just a while ago, they were a long way from their hoped for Promised Land. And now, faced with the sea in front of them and the pursuing slave masters behind them, the people were trapped, in a tight jam, you might say.
In fact, that is what is implied in Hebrew where the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a sound play with the word meitzarem which means a tight space, narrow straits.
So the people found themselves in a tight jam, with seemingly with no way through. But Moses had said that God would act and the waters would part, yet the waters hadn’t parted, and so Nachson went into the water, faithfully, hopefully. Further in he went, waters rising, ever rising. Past his waist, up to his chest and over his shoulders. But he kept going, right up to his nostrils the waters came. And then, only then, when the waters threatened to cut off his very breath of life did the waters begin to separate, allowing the people to cross and find a way through their tight jam into the spacious liberation on the other side.
This Jewish story from the midrash, the ancient Jewish commentary on the Scriptures, illustrates that acts of initiative that involve risk and discomfort are part of our co-creative task if we are to realize liberation that gives life.
Psychotherapist Estelle Frankel draws on her Jewish heritage in her book Sacred Therapy and sees in the Exodus story a description of the psyche’s journey to liberation. And on that journey, we come to places of particular tightness and narrowness, of seemingly no way through, places of constriction and contraction. And so we, too, like those Hebrews, in order to further the passage of life from bondage and contraction and restriction into freedom and dignity, into love and life will sometimes need to get in up to our nostrils before Spirit’s liberating movement is evident, before the signs of passage or transformation even begin to emerge. Making those steps is a creative act of trust, of faith.
It’s not possible to faithfully engage our tradition and teaching without engaging the great myth of the Exodus story. Foundational for Judaism and for Christianity, it is a deep human story reminding us of the deep longing of life for liberation and the journey that is taken to realize it.
And that liberation in the Scriptural saga is both internal and external. As the old Hasidic saying goes: It was not enough to take the Jews out of Egypt. It was necessary to take Egypt out of the Jews. There is an ongoing internal journey to liberation for all of us.
And, liberation is external. Our tradition and certainly the Divine teaching and witness of Jesus was to alter the situation of suffering that a person was in. Whether through healing an illness or injury, or through bringing someone back into community, or teaching a freeing truth to affect a situation, Jesus liberated people from the external situation they were in, helped to change their external circumstance. So often, the internal and external are linked. In the Jesus stories and in the Exodus saga, those liberating changes came with actions born of faith, born of an internal orientation of trust and vision, a willingness and a kind of courage to step out in faith. So often Jesus would say, "Your faith has made you well."
In the midrash story we just heard, one wonders what was it that led Nachson into the water, all the way up to his nostrils. I might imagine that in him somewhere deep down there was a vision of what liberation might feel and look like, and a desire, a determination, a longing to taste it. My spiritual hunch here is that this comes from the piece of the Divine planted in each of us. Maybe it’s like an image, or a spark, or as the ancient Jewish story says, a shard of Divine light.
In these times, do we still have that vision alive in our hearts? Do we lose our heart of vision, our faithful imagination?
Is it too painful to remember God’s Dream for us all, too easy to be cynical rather than vulnerable to being broken hearted?
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown notes that one of the core elements of liberation theology is hope, the hope that generates the sense of possibility that things can be different, that we are not fated to a forever of injustice and suffering. The poet Wendell Berry’s says “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
I think Spirit, when we really tap into her flow, inspires that kind of knowing and joy. I think that kind of faithful inspiration is what is coming through the Psalmist of our Scripture reading today. Psalm 146 begins with praise, high praise that comes from that flow of joy in the vision of liberation; prisoners set free, sight to the blind, food to the hungry, justice for the oppressed, inclusion for those pushed out and forgotten. Ah, what joy that is and will be!
The Psalmist bears witness to the GodMystery whose business is liberation. The Spirit whose enduring presence and movement and love opens up space, makes a way in the midst of tight straits, in the midst of our contraction of disappointment and anxiety, or fear and hard heartedness.
Poet and great elder Maya Angelou said simply that “love liberates.”
She ought to know. Maya was sexually assaulted as a child by a man. When she told, that perpetrator was found dead some days later. Some say her uncles did it. She thought she had killed him by speaking. So she didn’t speak. For six years. And while other children called her dumb and a moron for being mute, her grandmother just kept telling her, “Sister, I don’t care what they say. When you and the Good Lord decide it’s time, you will be a teacher.”
It is the God of Love, the Spirit of Love that comes through people like Maya Angelou’s grandmother, that liberates, that sees hope and possibility, and, like Nachson, the one who entered the sea up to his nostrils, that has the courage to act and to endure in faith. We all have that Divine Spark in us, that place that already knows what liberation is, what our deep Divine unity is. And every time we nurture, magnify, and listen to that place in us and in others and in Creation, we will have the vision and heart and Resurrection faith to walk into the waters of our liberation and our re-union.
Today is a holiday of liberation. It’s June 19th aka Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the occasion of some Africans’, and their descendants’, enslaved in America, learning of their emancipation on a June day in 1865 in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth was proclaimed a federal holiday in 2021 by President Biden. This designation introduced the Juneteenth holiday to a wider American audience, although the holiday has been celebrated for over 150 years among some African Americans.
Racism is one of the most effective ways to keep us in a story of separation, to keep us from God’s Liberating, life-giving Presence. It’s bad for people of color and for white people. And racism doesn’t have to look like burning crosses and crazy people with guns, though we know all too well it is still violent and lethal for people of color.
Sometimes racism works effectively by simply sidelining and ignoring. I had never heard of Juneteenth until a few years ago because Eurocentric, white culture was so deeply centered in so much of my education and exposure and relationships. Racism also works in subconsciously. Only in retrospect did I realize, in my hometown where there were a number of people of color, even a few in positions of authority, that our town probably would not have stood for any more in leadership and probably expected them to be more perfect. Nobody told me this explicitly, but, somehow I absorbed it. I knew it. This is racism and a form of oppression, holding down, holding back, a form of separating.
There is not enough time this morning to go further in this specific form of painful separation known as racism except to say, my friends, that for most of us there is a lot more wading into the waters of awareness about the subtle and powerful ways that white supremacy continues to live in us and in our community. And, let us be clear, white supremacy is in opposition to the liberating God of Jesus and to the ongoing project of Liberation that God is ever about. I’m happy to be in the ongoing discussion and practice of liberating ourselves from racism and to recommend further resources.
One practice is simply to acknowledge what has not been acknowledged: Today is Juneteenth and to learn about it. And tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Both days are about liberation, aren’t they? Like those enslaved who sought refuge from it, all those seeking refuge whom we call refugees are those in a tight space seeking enough security and enough resources to be liberated for a new life. I am so glad that we as a congregation are joining others in supporting the Jan family who came to Fort Collins from Afghanistan. As mentioned, COVID visited the Jan household this previous week so we will postpone our reception for them until this fall. But our work of serving their lives and liberation continues. May they travel further on the path of liberation.
So this morning, the invitation of faith, the way to being an Easter People, a people of the Holy Spirit, offered is to celebrate the Liberating Spirit of God, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and to firmly hold the Divine vision of liberation and deep unity. And then to act, to follow Nachson right into the waters, up to your nostrils, if necessary, so that Creation and all people might reach the other side, so that we might participate in tikkun olam, the restoration of the world.
On this Juneteenth Day, let us ask ourselves how we might participate in God’s liberating movement and let us pray for the guidance, vision, vulnerability, and strength to do so.