"Slaves to God"
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
June 3, 2018—Proper 4B
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
Okay everyone, take as wide and stable a stance as you are able, because we are heading out onto some very thin ice today. Holy thin ice. Necessary thin ice. But nonetheless, treacherous thin ice. Because we need to talk about slavery. We need to talk about slavery and the response it demands. And so we sang “Lift every voice and sing,” to hear its searing truth, its hope and its power. We sang it to hear what it had to teach us. We sang it, even though the vast majority of us more likely descend from slave owners than slaves.
We are on thin ice. We are on holy ground.
We also sang “Jesu, Jesu,” with its line about “Loving puts us on our knees, serving as though we were slaves.” And that sits uncomfortably with “Lift every voice and sing.” After all, we just denounced slavery, we just sang about how God wishes his children to be liberated from slavery, and now it’s being held up as a model for holiness? Now Paul is telling us in 2 Corinthians that we are slaves to each other for Jesus’ sake?
We are indeed on thin ice. We are on holy ground. We are at that crux between God’s hatred of the ways in which we exploit each other, and God’s love for the ways in which willingly give ourselves to each other (and in giving ourselves to each other, give ourselves to God). As I said: holy ground
But first, we need to be brave enough to talk about slavery. Because all of our readings today are about slavery. Yes, even the ones that are talking about Sabbath. As you may or may not have noticed in the Deuteronomy passage, the justification for the commandment about resting on the seventh day is not merely to echo the pattern of Creation. Rather, it is the recollection that they themselves used to be slaves in Egypt. They themselves used to toil endlessly, at the command of another.
In Egypt, you were owned by Pharaoh, and you could not rest. In Egypt, you were owned by Pharaoh, and did not have the chance to study or worship at leisure. In Egypt, you were owned by Pharaoh, and your entire life was dedicated to enriching HIM.
Now, you are the Lord’s possession, and that is an entirely different thing. And so that you might never forget how different that is, how life-giving that is, you will take a day off every week to rest from your labor.
Because none of the children of God should be worked into the ground, simply to enrich another. Because no child of God should work another into the ground, simply for their own enrichment. This is the conviction at the heart of the commandment to keep the Sabbath.
So we sing Lift every voice, to remind us of the rejoicing and the responsibility. We sing to remember that otherwise good people sometimes profit from the enslavement of others. We sing to be stirred, never to stop fighting for all those in this world who are enslaved: those who are controlled by violence, controlled by economics, controlled by state policy. We sing to be reminded of those who are made to work without ceasing, without refreshment, without time to give to family, to God, and to the community. We sing to remember that those things go against the will of God.
And we sing, so that we might pay attention to our own enslavement: pay attention to our own willingness to neglect family, God, and community … in order to keep working. Working from necessity, in a world with endless demands and rising costs on every side. Working to enrich ourselves and gain (or maintain) status. Working to prove our own worth, our necessity, our lovability.
Working. Working. Which is of course not bad in and of itself. Working hard is a good thing. Purpose and drive and responsibility are good things, that promote all kinds of goods for society and the individual. Note that the commandment to Sabbath does not equate work with slavery. It only equates unceasing work with slavery. It reminds us that work is not our sole defining factor. That work cannot bring us fully into relationship with God and each other.
You have to rest. You have to have the time to be who you are without the activity and productivity that the world declares worthy of recompense. You have to remember to BE.
Which brings us to the parallel question of what it means to be a slave to sin. Paul talks about this a lot, and to our ears it can sound like the idea that we are so enamored with greed, lust and pride that we do it all the time. That we are owned by it and forced to do these sinful things by factors beyond our control. But when Paul uses that phrase, he’s really talking about the power the idea of our own sinfulness has on our minds. He’s talking about the danger of thinking that we can and should be figuring how to be better: how to stop being sinful in all the ways that we humans tend to be sinful. And he calls that a danger because he himself has been trying as hard as he can all his life to do the right thing. To do it under his own steam. To BE righteous.
And he has found it impossible. He has found the idea that he should be able to do this, should be able to be righteous and good and worthy, to be a slave-owner. He was a slave to it, unable to work hard enough, to DO enough, to earn his way out.
Nadia Bolz Weber suggests[i] the same thing, when she talks about your inner critic being the Devil himself. Being “the accuser” (the “Satan”), who constantly tells you you can be it all, have it all, if you’d only try a little harder. If you’re failing? If you’re exhausted? If you are dropping balls (that important phone call you forgot to return? That school project your kid didn’t ace? That friend you let down?)? According to Satan, you should have managed all of those things. According to Satan, that means you are a failure. You are unworthy. You are unlovable. You are … doomed.
Which means you are a slave to sin. You are a slave to the idea that you should be able to do all these things, if only you would try harder. If only you didn’t take any time off. If only you would give absolutely every minute of your life to the one who insists you are proving your worth and earning your keep.
You are making Satan rich, my friends.
So … Stop. Take a rest. Decide to get off the rat race that requires you to pretend to be perfectly good, perfectly in control, perfectly put together and virtuous. You aren’t. You know you aren’t. None of us is. NONE of us is.
But the good news is: we don’t have to be. We don’t have to work at being perfectly virtuous, or pretend to be perfectly virtuous. God does not wish us to be a slave to sin (by which God means a slave to virtue). God wants us to have a Sabbath. God wants to give us the gift of Sabbath, the gift of truth. The truth that we are broken (and will always be broken). The truth that we are liars and we are addicts, that we are petty and we are prideful, that we are only as able to love as we feel confident on any given day. The truth: that this is who we are, and who we (for the most part) always will be. Our best defense against the accuser is our desire to be better, and that better be good enough, because our follow-through kind of sucks. But we hope, with Thomas Merton, that the desire to please God really does please God.
Results be damned. We would just rather not be slaves to sin any more: slaves to the terrible lie that we are capable of BEING GOOD under our own power. We’d rather surrender that, and acknowledge our weakness. Then maybe we can begin to understand what it is to be a slave to God. To surrender ourselves. To give whatever we have (limited as it really, really is) to others; to give it away, and trust that Jesus will give us everything that we ourselves could possibly need.
This, my friends, is our hope. This is the slavery that will be our freedom, and our salvation. May it be so. Amen.
[i] “The Devil = Your Inner Critic” https://www.makers.com/playlists/5b0df8e4597f3100013d3753/5b0dd9e75dc7a655b96a98ae