Our Identity is Freedom

SERMON 

Sunday 13 September 

St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly 

Exodus 14.19-31  

Psalm 114 

Romans 14.1-14  

Matthew 18.21-35 

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.  

+Amen. 

 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2018) 1. 1

 Ibid, 7. 2

 Ibid, 8. 3

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