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Sermon: Micro-Liberation and Radical Wellness

 

 

“Micro-Liberation and Radical Wellness”
Rev. Dr. Janet Parker
First Congregational UCC
August 25, 2019

Ancient Testimony: Luke 13:1-10

Modern Testimony: Excerpt from Casey Gerald, “The Black Art of Escape: 400 years have passed. Where do we go from here?”[1]

“As we stand, you and I, at the shoreline of destruction, seeing, in the distance, the end of this American empire, there is but one way forward, old and true: Be not conformed to this society — nor kill yourself to make it love you — but be transformed in it, against it, by the renewal of your mind, body, and spirit. No matter the cost.

Claim your inheritance. Miss the moment. Go mad, go missing, take a nap, take the day, drop a tab. You’re free!

Kum baba yali.

The kingdom is nigh.

Send a postcard, won’t you? Wink at me on the subway, in our dreams.”

I am not a bent over woman.  Now, it’s true, I struggle a little bit with my posture, and even when I was a teenager my mother was always saying to me, “Janet, stand up straight!”  So I try to remember, now and then, to straighten up and roll my shoulders back, and engage those core muscles.  But I am certainly not a bent over woman.

However…the other day, I had to complete a writing assignment for an ecumenical project I’m involved in with a long name. It’s called the Spiritual and Theological Mutual Accompaniment Project, and it includes people from the US, Mexico, and Peru who have been walking together for three years in a unique journey of solidarity and vulnerability.  Mostly, we share our stories with one another, and then we reflect on them theologically.  Finally, we talk about how we wish to act in the world differently as a result of our journey together.

In my first writing assignment for this year, I shared a story of trying to help a young man who showed up one day at our church needing help.  His fiancée was seriously ill and disabled, and he was just recently out of jail. As he began to launch into his story, he said, “please, don’t judge me.” Somehow, that really touched my heart.  Confessing to some background in drugs, he said he really wanted to be there for his fiancée now and get his life together.

Unlike many who come through our doors seeking help, he had two simple asks: bus passes and a tent they could sleep in. So, I decided to call my next appointment and tell him I was going to be late, and I took this man over to the TriMet office to get some bus passes. I also spoke with our Cara, our Business Manager, who immediately offered him her tent. It was a rare, heartwarming moment when we could actually help a human being with a concrete, immediate, modest need, thanks to our Pastor’s Discretionary Fund and Cara’s personal generosity.

In my reflection on this experience, I wrote, “I see people like this man every day in and around the church.  The city ‘Park Blocks’ around our church in the downtown Arts district are a playground for the affluent and a home for the homeless.  Here, suffering and life, pain and hope reside side by side.  As a pastor in this context, I am grateful for the opportunity to minister in a context where the tensions and oppressions of our society are not hidden away, and yet I also regularly feel helpless…only able to offer bandaids, not solutions.  I lack training, I lack time, I lack resources ….And so mostly I witness, I pray, I listen, I offer smiles and encouragement and human dignity.”

This is part of what I shared with my small group in my first writing assignment, when we were asked to write about “what we see” in our context.  In our second assignment, our coordinator, Juan Carlos La Puente, threw a curve ball.  He had been taking notes on what I and others had shared last year as key theological intuitions, or learnings, and I had written about liberation.  I had written that, “liberation is found in the midst of our relationships as we seek to live out of our authentic calling and authentic selves, in response to the brokenness of the world and the God we know through Jesus.” Juan Carlos challenged me to relate my understanding of liberation to the story I’d shared about helping this young man in need.

At first, I was stumped. I struggled to see “liberation” in this story. Compassion, yes. Charity, okay. But “liberation?” I thought about all the economic, cultural, medical, political and social systems that had combined to make a hash of this young couple’s lives. I felt the inadequacy of what I and the church had been able to offer to them in that moment. I felt weighed down. And I realized, I feel like this a lot as I face all the challenges the world is throwing at us these days. So, maybe I am a little bent over.  What about you? Do you ever feel bent over by the weight of the world, or by your own private struggles?

In his essay, “The Black Art of Escape,” Casey Gerald talks about his journey from poverty to wealth and fame and how even reaching the heights of success failed to make him a truly free black man. So he decided to disappear, to become invisible, to deconstruct his life and start over. And he discovered that the most radical thing a person can do, especially people who belong to marginalized groups in our society, is to be well. So now he meditates, but as most of us who try to meditate have experienced, initially that just puts us more in touch with our burdens.  He writes:

“The yogi says: When you are able to sit, the whole universe will come with folded hands, and serve you. I will say: While you wait for the whole universe to come, the whole world comes in its place, demanding a response, demanding action, demanding sorrow, tears, and blood.”[2]

Can you relate?

Jesus wanted people to be well. Have you ever noticed how much of Jesus’ activity in the Gospels is focused on healing people? I mean, healing people. Not just offering spiritual comfort or mental release, but real, embodied, physical-psychic-spiritual healing, because Jesus came to liberate the whole person, and we are all physical-psychic-spiritual beings. As Westerners who by and large don’t believe in miracles, we usually get stuck on the physical healings Jesus did, and whether or not they “really happened.” But what may have mattered even more to the people Jesus healed was the way in which he restored them as social and religious beings.

When Jesus touched the bent over woman, he reached across a chasm constructed by contemporary understandings of Jewish law and initiated a marvelous exchange. He took on her uncleanness and freed her from it. By restoring her to health, he restored her to ritual purity and enabled her to participate fully again in the life of her family, her Temple and her society. By making her well, he made her free. In her commentary on Luke, Sharon Ringe says, “The phrase ‘daughter of Abraham’ is found only here in all the Gospels.  The masculine parallel, ‘sons of Abraham,’… is a common way to identify the people of God [and specific individuals in the Gospels].  Here, this woman… is brought from the margins to the heart of her people.”[3]

But you know what? Believe it or not, I would bet that Jesus often felt inadequate. I mean, think about it. The people who recognized him as God’s messiah were expecting so much more. Sure, he healed some people, but did he chase the Romans out of Israel? No! Did he get rid of the tyrants Herod and Pilate? No! Did he restore the Davidic monarchy? No! What use is a messiah like that?

When I met with my small group online last week to discuss our second writings, I shared an “aha” moment with my compadres. One of my colleagues talked about how we get trapped in a Westernized understanding of liberation that expects it to be “big.” Big like the defeat of Hitler, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what if, most of the time, liberation is found in small moments and acts of kindness and compassion, of seeing the image of God in another human being? Angel, a queer theologian from Mexico City, came up with a great term for this: “Micro-Liberation.” In the midst of these monstrous structures that chew up human life, what if we could celebrate “micro-liberation” wherever we find it, in the midst of life’s uncertainties?

When Jesus set free a woman who had been captive to what the Bible literally calls, if you translate the Greek, a “spirit of weakness,” that was everything to her. It gave her her life back. But in the context of first-century occupied Palestine, what was this? It was a micro-liberation. But it mattered. And seeing it, we’re told, “all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.” Do you see the ripple effect of that? We don’t know the rest of the story, but what ripple effect did that micro-liberation have on her spouse (if she had one), her children, her wider community, her synagogue, and maybe, maybe on that synagogue leader, once he had a chance to think about it a little more?

What does your version of “micro-liberation” look like? What would make you able to stand up straight again? What would enable you to truly be made well?  In an interview on NPR’s Here and Now, Gerald says, “If you want to be woke, you got to be well.  There’s no enlightened being in the history of the world who doesn’t say that the inner self being free is a primary condition for the outer world experiencing freedom.”[4] And that’s why he said there’s a third way he wants to offer black folk. And by extension, I hope he would be okay with the rest of us taking a page from this as well. And that is, one way of liberation is to buckle down, work hard, and struggle your way out of the morass you’re in. The second way is to rise up and resist. But the third way is to take flight. To be well. To withdraw, on occasion, for your own micro-liberation.

One of Gerald’s friends, a black theologian in Atlanta “on the brink of disintegration” from white supremacy and capitalism began to nap.  She told him, “Naps really saved my life,” and so she started a Nap Ministry. Seriously. And now she spreads the good news of the Nap Ministry. And let me tell you, I believe in this good news–I am a practitioner of naps! So I appreciate this part. She wrote to him, “Our dream space has been stolen and we want it back. Naps are reparations.”[5]

So, the next time the whole world comes demanding action, demanding “sorrow, tears and blood,” Gerald says, “Don’t take the bait. Perform your civic duty, yes. Vote. Help those in need. Weep with those who weep….”[6] But I say to you, our God does not require human sacrifice. That is not what our God is about.  Jesus practiced true Sabbath-keeping by making it clear that human wholeness is a form of godliness. So claim your “micro-liberation,” and spread the good news. Take a nap; the world will still be there when you awaken. Amen.

 

[1] Casey Gerald, “The Black Art of Escape: 400 years have passed. Where do we go from here?” http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/the-black-art-of-escape.html, (August 8, 2019).

[2] Casey Gerald, “The Black Art of Escape.”

[3] Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 188.

[4] Tonya Mosley interview with Casey Gerald, “Stay Well, Not Woke: Casey Gerald on ‘The Black Art of Escape,’” https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/08/21/author-casey-gerald-inner-freedom, (August 21, 2019).

[5] Gerald, “The Black Art of Escape.”

[6] Ibid.

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