Sunday 13 September
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Our Identity is Freedom ©Suzanne Grimmett
A viral pandemic has forced many Christians to break the Sunday morning church-going habit of a lifetime. Such a disruption to our routine practices has invited greater reflection for many on why they go to church, and what Christianity is all about for them. Who are we really?
As I have been pondering such questions I have revisited Walter Brueggemann’s master work, “The Prophetic Imagination.” He argues that the church has become enculturated, mirroring the dominant culture of consumerism and losing her true identity. The internal cause of this loss of identity, he argues, is an ‘abandonment of the faith tradition’, with ‘a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope’.1
Now by ‘faith tradition’ Brueggemann does not mean traditionalism, which tends to concretise the forms of worship, muffles the voices of the prophets and stifles the breath of the Spirit. He does mean a powerful reclaiming of our collective memory: both in recalling the Scriptural narratives which shape and define us and the lived experience of generation after generation through history who have sought to inhabit that “same mind that was in Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 2:5)
But what narratives should we be recalling and what experience should we be living? There is so much that could be said here, but our readings today provide significant direction today on what matters most.
The foundational story of the Exodus reminds us that our tradition cannot be understood outside this narrative of freedom. It is the story we need to tell again and again against the empires that oppress in every age and the structures that work against our liberation. We have been hearing the story of Moses in the past weeks, from the burning bush to the plagues and today we arrive at that moment where the Egyptian chariots and riders are thrown into the sea while the Israelites walk through on dry land, leaving behind their life of slavery to begin a new day of freedom.
Yet the Hebrew people were not keen to follow Moses from the beginning. The move of Exodus is to move from oppression yes, but also from a place of security, from the known to the unknown, from a fixed social identity to imagining a totally new community that matches the vision of God’s liberation. It was not until about halfway through the plagues that the 2 Hebrews stopped crying out to their Egyptian overlords and gods because they realised that all the claims of the empire were self-serving and their power a fraud. The gods of Egypt had to be proved impotent before the people would turn and trust the God of freedom.
The Ancient Egyptian regime is described as one that ordered the chaos of human existence but was oppressive, utilitarian and lacking in compassion. It is depicted as a society that would soon be handed over to its own violent impulses, as Pharoah goes back on his word and pursues the freed slaves; an act that results in the waters overtaking the chariots and the Egyptian army “dead on the seashore”.
If we are to read this story with all its narrative power, we need to wonder about the social structures which order and regulate our lives. Oppression in our culture could be found in the consumerism which robs us of community. Media writer, Neil Postman argues that there is more contemporary truth in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World where the dominant mode of control over people was through entertainment, distraction, and superficial pleasure than in the totalitarian dystopia of Orwell’s 1984. This no doubt has some truth, and it may be that in the consumable goods that make our lives comfortable and the technological advances of past decades, even the church has lost its attention and commitment to that which offers life and freedom. Our urban lifestyle can separate us from one another and from the created world at the same time as our busyness prevents us from hearing the voices of those who are being relentlessly excluded from the same access to resources and benefits we enjoy. It takes a prophetic imagination to recognise the failure of the gods of our own age and culture.
So where do we start? The story of the Exodus begins not with the parting of the Red Sea, nor even with Moses at the burning bush but with the God who says, “I have heard the cry of my people.” When we lose the ability to cry out,
to grieve and give voice to the pain of one another, we empower the status quo, supporting structures which serve the few. Lament prevents us from pretending everything is all right. There can be no criticism when the spin doctors insist that all is good and empires continue in unassailable power; whether that be the empires found in the party room, religious institutions, the principal’s or executive’s office or in a marriage. Grief raising its voice says quite clearly that things are not as they should be. The Church is not being the Church if it suppresses or ignores the cry of the oppressed.
The ultimate critique is found in the realisation that the powers being claimed by the dominant culture of an institution or of society are fraudulent. New life and new community begin when we refuse to be accountable any longer to powers which rob us of our shared humanity and seduce us into surrendering agency to those who maintain the status quo for the ‘haves’ and ignore the suffering of those left out or abused. To be exodus people is to choose instead to be ruled by the powers of love and justice, drawing on our collective memory and lived experience to assert that it is for freedom that we have been set free. (Gal 5:1).
But how do we know what it is to be free? Humankind is capable of becoming comfortable with its own enslavement. Here is where the parable Matthew’s Gospel reminds us of our responsibility for the freedom we have been given. In this story when the slave receives mercy, he steps for a moment into a debt-free world; a world where punishments do not follow failure and consequences are not rigidly applied. He is liberated to start anew, living without encumbrance in mutual relationships of compassion, but he does not allow himself to be transformed by the free gift he is offered. Instead he steps back into the culture where debts are retained and freedom is swallowed by the world of retribution he has always known. Just as Pharoah goes back on his word and insists on the recapturing of the Hebrews, so this slave cannot embrace his freedom but follows the dark and easy road to the enslavement of others through his own habitual unforgiveness. The consequence is that he too, like Pharoah, is handed over to the forces of death.
These are central stories of our tradition, stories that show us how we can find life-giving ways to be together. But stories on their own, though powerful, are not enough. To find our identity in these shifting times, it is important to remember that Christianity is never for spectators. It is existential and can not be neatly explained or observed but only received and lived. The liberal wing of the Church has tended to care about ‘the politics of justice and compassion’ but to ignore the spirituality of a lived experience of the freedom of God. Conservatives have focussed on personal relationships with God, but linked to political stability and order, failing to notice where this order has been a source of social oppression. But the identity of the Church is found in 3 a third, sacramental way: to be Eucharistic people who have ‘put on the mind of Christ’; forgiving as we have been forgiven and sharing God’s imagination for a world that is not ruled by greed, or desire for power, or commodified by wealth and influence but governed by justice and mercy. The task of the Church is to be people set free to live in a world transformed by grace, liberating others as we ourselves have been liberated. The future belongs to God’s imagination and we are called to co-create with God by living out our identity in Christ and through Christ; people of hope creating communities of freedom defined by radical forgiveness and love.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2018) 1. 1
Ibid, 7. 2
Ibid, 8. 3