Sunday, July 16, 2006

"To Preach the Unpreachable Text"

Abel Lopez, my friend and clergy colleague at All Saints Church today managed to preach a fabulous sermon on a very challenging text ... a sermon he has given me permission to share on this blog and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed hearing it! (You'll miss the Cuban accent but you can't have everything!)

"Shall We Dance" -- A Sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-17

In the process of doing research for this sermon, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a paper by Thomas G. Long of Princeton Theological Seminary that addressed the question of whether or not every biblical text could be preached. Long asked, “are there biblical texts so historically remote, so theologically conflictural…..that they are simply not legitimate texts for preaching? He concluded, that although few, indeed there were a limited number of texts which would fall into the category of unpreachable. You’ll appreciate that my surprise turned to fear when, although not identified as solidly unpreachable, our lesson today was identified in the strongly questionable category.

Long went on to say that for many of these “Difficult Preaching Texts,” it was necessary to explore a different model of interpretation. He suggests that we should step back from the text and ask questions of function rather than merely of content. I agree with Long; however as I wrestled with the text (and I did wrestle with the text) I concluded that function was important and also there was an opportunity for us to gain much from the content.

Clearly, when reading the first part of the story, one has to ask, “what is going on here?” What kind of God is this that would strike dead poor Uzzah for just trying to steady the Ark? Do we dismiss this text because it shows us an angry, violent, punishing God? Stepping back and looking at this story from a functional perspective, one has to examine what symbolism is at play. What did Uzzah’s spontaneous and reflexive response to the falling Ark reveal about him? You see the Ark in this story can be seen to represent the cosmic power of the divine, free from all human control or intervention. Uzzah, on the other hand, represents the limited human effort to “..manipulate divine presence and favor.”

I can imagine that if we had asked Uzzah, prior to his death, if he believe in God the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, he would have responded with a resounding yes! And yet this great believer, when the oxen stumbled, revealed his real faith: His was a God that was so small it was contained in a box and so powerless that if the box fell God would fall. His God had become an empty shell of a God trapped inside a fragile religious symbol.

Look with me and see Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark.
I see Uzzah reaching out to steady the Ark when someone says that we shouldn’t seek to grow and extend our message of God’s inclusive love.
I see Uzzah reaching out to steady the Ark in the comprised vote made at the General Convention.
I see Uzzah reaching out to steady the Ark every time someone says that Sermons from this pulpit are too political and should be toned down.

Now, let’s examine content. Notice I said David brought the Ark. David, unlike Uzzah, recognized that the Ark was a sacred symbol. Important in the faith and worship tradition of the Israelite people, but David knew that it was not in and of itself God the Almighty. David knew that he stood before a God not isolated within a container. His dancing and leaping was an expression of joy and praise to God. It was a form of religious rejoicing, an expression of joy on the occasion of bringing of the Ark to Jerusalem. David was passionate in his praise and worship of the Lord. Recall, much of the book of Psalms (meaning Songs of Praises) was written by David. On one occasion he said, “Let them praise his name in the dance: Let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.”

Now, before you become alarmed, I’m not going to advocate for the introduction of dance into the worship Services at All Saints. But today’s lessons did cause me to ponder this very physical form of worship in David’s time and perhaps in more recent times.

I suggest to you this morning that Dancing is a powerful symbol. It can become, for us, the double-performance of both human prayer and divine address. On the one hand, the dance can express our deep desire and longing to be free of oppression and grief, the longing of people still marginalized. On the other hand, the dance can become a way for us to experience healing. Also, and not to be missed, the dance can become an expression of our ongoing and evolving relationship with the divine.

Cubans take dancing very seriously. We expect our babies to learn to dance before they can walk. In every city, throughout the country, people from all ages gather at the plazas, on weekends, for a celebration of music and dance. As a young man, I interpreted that every musical piece, was a way for Cubans to move beyond the bonds of oppression and to express our cry for freedom of speech. I saw the unrestrained movement of the body as a way of rejecting and throwing off the excessive control our government imposed on it’s people. I use to say to myself, if dancing is a way to release the pains of oppression, no wonder Cubans are such good dancers! Although I understood that it was a way to be lifted beyond the oppression, I thought it was a poor substitute for political or social action. Throughout my life in Cuba I resisted participating in these celebrations. Not dancing in Cuba is like renouncing your citizenship. I saw my not dancing as a protest vote.

It was many years later in Austin, TX that the movie Buena Vista Social Club aired. I saw the movie many times and I would cry over and over again. I needed deep healing. I needed to face the reality that I had built up and maintained so much resentment toward our government. Resentment that was buried deep, deep within my heart. Whereas others had found a way to express hope and at least elevate themselves weekly from the oppression, I had isolated myself and refused to join the dance. It was then that I realized that I was living in exile long before I left my Cuba. Dancing had given so many in Cuba hope, a way to free their bodies and mind.

I was recently sharing much of this with a friend of mine who is from the South. We often compare similarities between Cuban culture and Southern Culture. Usually our conversations center around food. He said the following to me, “Abel, some of my most cherished moments growing up were my time spent worshipping along side my family in a black church. The music was expressive and freeing. It was not unusual to have one of the Sisters get caught up in the Spirit and break out into a shout or dance. My friends and I thought all the shouting was quite funny and we would often take bets as to which Sister would be the first to get the Spirit. But even then, as a child, I understood the sacredness of these services to people who were excluded from so much of the world.”

He continued, “They brought into worship their disappointments, their pain, the hurt they experienced daily from overt racism. They also brought into worship their joys, hope, and their expressions of thanks and praise for the blessings God brought into their lives. Looking back, had I not lived the life they were living, it would be easy for me to dismiss these services as emotionalism over substance. But that would be a big mistake, for they taught me that ultimately, the sacred performance is life. Like David their worship experience sprang from their life experiences.”

So If I am not advocating for a more inclusive worship at All Saints, including a little shouting and dance, where am I going with this almost unpreachable text. First, allow me to bring this down to the personal level. As individuals each of us experience the pains and joys of life. We too can feel disenfranchised, disappointments and perhaps being oppressed or simply not appreciated. We are sometimes loss to God’s call and purpose for our lives. God invites us to leave our selves, to leave our pain behind for a moment and to share in the ecstasy of the divine dance of love, which is the true liturgy in which we know God. Remember God is always reaching out to us. "Shall we dance?" Says God. "Lose yourself! Dance wildly and freely with me. Dance with the abandonment of David. Help me break the floor rules that keep you in the corner while the rest of us are dancing." God is present, planting possibilities with every encounter, inspiring adventures with every step of your dance.

On an institutional level you’ve heard much over the past few weeks about the outcome of General Convention. One could say that the divine Spirit was surely at play in the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Presiding Bishop. I wasn’t there but I’m told that there was much shouting, crying and expressions of joy. Would it be presumptuous of me to assume that there was a little dancing going on? Just some 31 years ago Bishop Schori would not have been allowed to be ordained let alone become a Bishop and I’m sure few people, if any, would have expected that in the course of three decades the Episcopal Church would have elected a female Presiding Bishop.

How could all of this have happened in a Church with such entrenched structures and processes going back hundreds of years? I’d suggest it was because the Church over the past many years continued to dance with the divine. I’d like to think of the Church connected torso to torso with the divine, dancing, sometimes embracing, sometimes stepping back, but always remaining in rhythm with the music. It is the way we live out our interpretation of our Christian faith. It is the interplay of reasoning, tradition and scripture that allows us to hear God’s call in our time. It precludes us from grasping hold of theology in a dogmatic, obsessive or intolerant way. It is our dancing that brought us Katharine as our new Presiding Bishop and we as individuals and the collective church should dance in prayer and thanksgiving for this wonderful gift and we should dance in prayer asking God to guide and be with Bishop Schori, for the demands of her leadership will be great and more than, many of us could bear.

Finally, continuing on the institutional level, I want to speak briefly to the other big outcome of the convention. As excited and thankful as we were to hear of our new Presiding Bishop, we were equally sadden and disappointed to learn of the decision to approve a resolution which formalized discrimination and institutional oppression in the Church. Know that this resolution does not only discriminate against and oppress gay and lesbian members of the church. It discriminates against and oppresses all of us, all of us. For the rationalization and thought, contained in such a compromise, oppresses all of us whose dance with the divine calls us to understand God’s inclusive love as having no restrictions on how we hear God’s call to serve. We are all wounded and oppressed by this action.

Know that as we continue on our journey for true inclusion for all of our brothers and sisters, we can be lifted from the oppression and the discrimination by the praise and dancing we offer up to God. We come here each Sunday to be in community, to be nurtured to kneel down asking God for healing. I ask you to incorporate in your worship and prayer that we be free from oppression. Pray that our leaders will continue to dance with the divine, that their dance will in the end not be like Uzzah. Pray that we will not continue to try and steady the Ark by discriminating against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Pray that we understand the true call of God to be that we lift up from oppression all of our brothers and sisters just as we were called to lift up to the world and to God, Bishop Katherine as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. Amen.


cscwallace said...

Hmmm, Bishop Katharine was instrumental in passing the resolution that discriminates/oppresses gays, so forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about the rather inauspicious start of her new ministry. Compromising one's prior convictions at the expense of others is reprehensible. She is now one of the authors, along with the current PB Frank Griswold, of the aforementioned discrimination/oppression now officially written into our beloved Church's history. Sorry, but I don't feel like dancing.

And, dear Sister Susan, seeing that comments are moderated, I must say that I hope you, as the leader of Integrity, will not seek to stifle the hurt of a fellow gay Episcopalian in this forum. Especially at this time we need an outlet to express our disappointment rather than blindly accepting our leadership's misguided attempts at so-called compromise. Thank you for allowing me to vent.

Ann said...

from a country western song:
Life is a dance
With steps you don't know
Join the dance
Learn as you go.

Renee in Ohio said...

Hey, I recognize that picture! ;)

Hope people will check out the transcription of the Claiming the Blessing Voices of Witness video, where I used that screen capture.

Anonymous said...

I think this was an absolutely wonderful sermon. As a gay man and father of two, I must admit that I felt both joy and humiliation after the actions of the General Convention. However, I listen to my friends on both sides of the issue and it seems we made great progress. We can't expect to change the world with one convention. Miracles occurred! Let's don't become so consumed with one issue that we miss the greater calling of the Church -- that would be a real shame. Unfortunately, I know many hurting souls who are totally obsessed with the actions of the General Convention. I promise you: in God's time and with His help, all will be well. Keep the faith and stay on course with your life's mission. Dance, have fun, express yourself, enjoy yourself...I loved the sermon!

Anonymous said...

As a gay man, I can understand the hurt and pain caused by the last-minute "compromise" or "betrayal" at General Convention. However, I also feel a lot of tolerance and compassion for +Bishop Jefferts Schori. +Bishop Griswold put her in an uncomfortable position, and she could not reject the PB's request to support the resolution without seeming dogmatic and stubborn. Let's face it, her track record on LGBT issues in her own diocese and in the press have been exemplary, and I think we should give cut her some slack, practice a little patience, and give her the benefit of the doubt. If that was the price of a ticket to Lambeth 08, then that should have been clearly stated. But let's not lose sight of the big picture. The truth is that the Episcopal Church is moving forward unabated (and, actually, pretty quickly) toward the full, uncompromised, and undifferentiated inclusion of all people in the Church. I joined the Episcopal Church because of +Gene Robinson's consecration. We must certainly continue to challenge those who call for our exclusion from the Church, but let's acknowledge how hard it is for our progressive sisters and brothers in the House of Bishops to be shepherds of all of God's people. They've got a tough job, and we need to pray for them.

Beyond Reconciliation said...

Abel Lopez is one of the best and brightest young priests in the Episcopal Church today! He said amazing things on the Voices of Witness video and his analogy in this sermon of the church trying to hold back God is brilliant! We should offer prayers of thanks for Abel's ministry.

revsusan said...

cscwallace -- I have with regret resorted to moderating comments on this blog ... a decision described in a post a while back entitled "What Elizabeth Said."

That said, the point is not to keep out dissenting opinions or even venting and ranting ... it's about stopping the avalanche of personal attacks on authors of posts and comments on same AND those so obsessed with the biological details of what they imagine to be other people's sex lives that there is no room for anything else.

And just for the record:

a] I am excited about the prospect of Katharine Jefferts Schori's leadership in these challenging times and am looking forward to both supporting her in her commitment to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church and (if necessary) holding her accountable to it and

b] I have named and will continue to name the actions of General Convention in passing B033 a stunning lack of moral leadership in writing defacto sacramental apartheid into the historic record of this church.

Finally, what I liked best about Abel's sermon was his call for us to dance ANYWAY ... not ignoring the oppression but in spite of it. "I realized that I was living in exile long before I left my Cuba. Dancing had given so many in Cuba hope, a way to free their bodies and mind."

With prayers that you find whatever it is that gives you hope and strength ...

Beyond Reconciliation said...

I agree with cscwallace about +Schori. She's got a great track record in her diocese and before GC06. Still, she preached the morning before B033 was passed that Jesus calls us to be friends, not agents of fear. Then, in what can only be described as an evil wind, blew throughout the convention center, first taking +Schori's principles and consciense hostage, then the House of Deputies. She became that which she has preached against: an agent of fear. And she spread the fear, causing good people to go against their hearts, minds and consciences. It has now become a trust issue. I like her but I don't trust her. Neither should Integrity or any GLBT person in this church. She needs to regain and re-earn our trust. It will not come to her as blindly as did the votes for B033.

Brian said...

This is quite wonderful on the dancing and rejoicing with abandon.

There is an explanation of what happened to Uzziah -- the situation was wrong to begin with. The law said that no one was to touch the Ark. The only way to carry it was on the shoulders of the priests, using staves carefully inserted through rings in the side of the Ark. That is how the Ark was carried through the wilderness and over Jordan. It should not have been on the back of a cart.

Perhaps we could interpret this to say that human contrivance ignorant of God's intentions can cause tragedy, even to those undeserving of harm.

David realised this when, later, the Ark was carried out of the house of Obed-edom on the shoulders of the priests, to succesfully continue its journey.

Bateau Master said...

Sometimes your only purpose in life is to serve as a negative example for others!

Uzzah gets four verses of mention in Scripture ... by the third verse he is dead and shows us the ultimate consequence for breaking the law.

+Abel’s use of this story to weave into a current political allegory is skillful but overreaching, and that path can lead to rationalizing that leads to behaviors that separate us from God. Sometimes Scripture means what it says, so, don’t touch the Ark.

cscwallace said...

To clarify -- for me, the issue of Bishop Katharine is TRUST. At first, I rejoiced when Rowan Williams was made ABC. He had a track record of supporting gays in ministry, even ordaining "practicing" gays into the priesthood. THEN, he caved to the conservatives rather than do the right thing. Next, PB Frank Griswold, a long-time supporter of gays in ministry, caved to the conservatives so that TEC could remain part of the club called the Anglican Communion. As if that weren't bad enough, he persuaded Bishop Katharine to do the same! Forgive my doubts about her, but the track record here does not bode well for the future. Susan, I fear that you (and Integrity) will indeed need to hold her feet to the fire and yes, that saddens me.

Catherine + said...

Re: +Katharine,

We don't know the whole story, so I refuse to judge her as harshly as she has been here by some. What part doesn't anyone get that in order for her to get to THE TABLE at Lambeth, et al., that we had to give a little so we can gain much more later? Read the resolution. It's not in concrete people. Newark has already defied it, so what? The C of E already is facing its own schism with women bishops now. Perhaps now they will understand something of our struggle and attempted schism here. What Canterbury has dished out is now coming back to haunt them.

Beyong Reconciliation said...

Katherine+ - Here's the part of the story you need to grasp: The straight white father bishops thought they needed a sacrifice to get to Lambeth. So they said, okay...take them.....those whose manner of life, etc....CODE FOR GAY. Take the gays. Maybe if they said, take the blacks, take the women, take the children, you might get it. It's not okay to take anybody here! What part of the price to Lambeth on the backs of the vocations of gays and lesbians in tis church don't you get? What incredible hubris you have to think it is okay!!

Catherine + said...

I didn't say it was OK. I simply meant that sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot.

Even I can figure that out.