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EASTER: THE ULTIMATE LIBERATION
Easter Sunday – Year A
April 16, 2017
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community Palm Springs CA
Acts 10:34A; 37-34 Psalm 118:1-2;6-7;21-23 Colossians 3:1-4 John 20:1-9
Rev. David Justin Lynch
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, the news reports were full of all kinds of reports about “liberation”. Women’s Liberation. Black Liberation. Asian Liberation. Native American Liberation. Mexican Liberation. Even Men’s Liberation. Everyone wanted to liberated from something. In this context, “liberation” means “the act or fact of gaining equal rights or full social or economic opportunities for a particular group.” But liberation is more than that. Dictionary dot com defines liberation as, “the act of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery, or oppression”; and “freedom from limits on thought or behavior.”
The 1960’s and 70’s popularized a concept called, “Liberation Theology.” It has been controversial. Some people associate “Liberation Theology” with Marxism, which supposedly bad. While most Catholic Christians may have been sympathetic to the first part of the definition of liberation – freeing people from imprisonment, slavery or oppression – they were very unsympathetic to “freedom from limits on thought or behavior.” But I think we can all agree there must be some limits on behavior, although we may disagree as to what those limits are. Certainly, violent behavior is off the table.
Despite the suppression of “Liberation Theology” by the two previous popes, the ascent of Pope Francis has breathed new life into it. And, some aspects of Liberation Theology continued to develop among alterative catholic churches such as Old Catholics like we are, and the more progressive iterations of the Anglican Church.
What exactly is “Liberation Theology?” Liberation theology is a movement that interprets Scripture through the plight of the poor. True followers of Jesus, according to liberation theology, must work toward a just society, bring about social and political change, and align themselves with poor rather than wealthy people. To quote Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, “The liberation theologian goes to the scriptures bearing the whole weight of the problems, sorrows, and hopes of the poor, seeking light and inspiration from the divine word.”
The favoritism of Jesus for the poor came not from library research, but from the circumstances of His own life. We know Jesu did not come from a privileged background, but was born to two peasants in a stable. It’s only natural what His empathies would be and where his sympathies would lie. Liberation theology does have its critics. Some say that it exalts practice over doctrine, that the concern of the church should be purely spiritual and not social, and that God loves rich people and poor people equally. However, all throughout the Bible, we find that God ALWAYS champions the cause of those who are poor and beaten down as they struggle for human dignity, freedom and economic justice, all of which should be prominent doctrines of the Church. When the children of Israel cried out for help as they suffered the agonies of their enslavement under Pharaoh, God heard their cry and joined them in their fight for freedom. The Book of Exodus saw God side with the Jews as they sought deliverance from Egyptian domination. Later on, when the Israelites are settled in the Holy Land, rich and powerful Jews emerged, living lives of affluence without regard for the sufferings of the poor. In response to their indifference, God raised up prophets to decry the plight of the poor and call the rich to repent. The prophets of ancient Israel challenged, in the name of God, what was happening to those who were victimized in an unjustly stratified society.
Fast forward a few centuries to New Testament times, Mary, the mother of Jesus, responds to the Annunciation that she will give birth to the Messiah by claiming that it will one day be said of her soon-to-be-born son: …He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53) Jesus himself, in his initial sermon, declared that He has come to bring “good news for the poor” and to “preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18-19). The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated from poverty and powerlessness.
The Resurrection of Jesus, however, is THE ultimate liberation. Christian freedom is the recognition that Jesus by His Resurrection has conquered death. The free are the oppressed who say no to an oppressor. The Resurrection brings freedom from sin and death, because sin leads to death, both physical and spiritual. Let me give you a concrete real world example of how sin can lead to physical death. Imagine a government that cuts funding for foodstamps and medical care for the poor so it can cut taxes for wealthy people. People will actually die of as a result of the government’s sin of upward redistribution of wealth. Depriving hungry people of food to balance some stupid budget, or to pass judgment on their character, is so obviously a sin that it needs no further comment. But that is not the whole story. The decision-making process that gets to upward redistribution of wealth causes a spiritual death as well, by introducing an attitude of callousness towards the very humanity of other people. That principle is best illustrated by the story of Lazarus and Dives. You will recall that the poor man Lazarus dined on scraps at the gate of the rich man Dives, and when they died, Lazarus ended up in the bosom of Abraham while Dives is roasting in Hell. Dives asks Lazarus for a drink of water, but scripture points out that it not possible because of an unbridgeable chasm between them based on what their position during their life on earth.
HOW the Resurrection happened was a MYSTERY. None of the Gospel accounts contain an eyewitness telling us that Jesus got up and walked out of the tomb. What is important for us, however, is the MEANING of the Resurrection of Jesus and WHAT IT ACCOMPLISHED. The Lazarus whom Dives refuses to help was created in God’s image. Thus, indifference towards the human needs of others creates separation between God and people. Jesus came to reconcile that separation, and accomplished it with His Resurrection, which represents His victory over the powers of evil that put him to death, the powers that were at work in Dives when he ignored the hungry Lazarus at the palace gate. If Jesus can overcome death, the world can overcome poverty, disease, hunger, and oppression of human rights. All of these things come from human society structures, how humanity organizes its affairs, not from God.
The social implications of this biblical theme of liberation have been taken up by a variety of oppressed groups over the past fifty years. For example, Gays who are Christians also have made Jesus their liberator as they have fought for dignity and acceptance in what they believe to be a homophobic society. Christian feminists have claimed that Jesus came to liberate women from oppression—especially as oppression of women manifests itself in certain Islamic countries, as well as in the male domination encouraged by some forms of Christianity.
How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice? There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation. We can do that changing our economic system from one in search of profit to one that is based on the love of one’s neighbor, of not doing to others things we wouldn’t want done to us. Too often, however, some of our sister and brother Christians use Christianity to uphold oppression and domination. A good example is slavery which was outlawed everywhere less than 120 years ago. This same behavior, however, continues today in legal restrictions and social prejudices against foreigners as such, and in the perpetuation of an economic system based on survival of the fittest, personal financial responsibility for one’s own survival, contracts, and property rights. At its worst, it equates poverty with the moral failings of poor individuals, despite facts to the contrary. And, we also see some Christians using their religion to uphold gender stereotypes to oppress and subjugate women.
In today’s Gospel, it is a woman, Mary Magdalene, who is the first to announce to the other disciples that Jesus was not in the tomb. She is often called “the apostle to the apostles.” An apostle is a commissioned agent sent out, in a Christian sense to tell the good news. That is exactly what she said and did. She was NOT, as some preachers will say today, a reformed prostitute. There is no evidence in scripture or elsewhere to support that. That story is a bunch of sexist nonsense intended to demean women. Yet despite this undisputed biblical facts about Mary Magdalene, throughout most of Church history, and sadly still in some places, women have been excluded from ordained Christian ministry. That has been a scandal of the very worst kind. Nowhere in any of the Gospels did Jesus preach the subjugation of women or confining women to a particular role. If one looks at the ministry of Jesus as a whole, he did nothing but reach out to, and respect, women. The stories about Mary and Martha of Bethany. The Samaritan Woman. The woman caught in adultery. And many more. Not once did He say that the primary purpose of female existence was to bear children.
While it is true that the Gospels record that Jesus chose only men as Twelve of his disciples, not once did Jesus make a positive statement explicitly limiting ministry to men. Yet garbage like that, is still enshrined in the canons of major ecclesiastical institutions. And, I do mean, GARBAGE, as in BASURA. I refuse to call excluding women from ordained a mere difference of opinion I can or should respect. It is a grave moral wrong, and I will call it out as such every time, regardless of what others say about my doing so.
Here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, sometime in late 2017 or the first half of 2018, we will celebrate the ordination to the Perpetual Diaconate of my wife, Sharon Kay Talley, also known as Beeper. She is now intensely studying scripture, theology, pastoral care, and the liturgical functions of a Deacon. Sharon is going through the same training and education a similarly situated man would. She will be one terrific Deacon. Why? A beeper and a Deacon have something in common. If you remember what beepers did before the age of cellphones, they alerted you to do something, usually to communicate with another person. That fits a Deacon’s ministry quite well, because part of a Deacon’s ministry is to communicate the concerns of the laity to the Church. Sharon will be highly qualified to be a Deacon because of her two past professions: sales and teaching elementary school. A Deacon proclaims the Gospel at Mass. In doing that, the Deacon sells Jesus to the world. Another part of the ministry of a Deacon is to teach the faith. As you know from hearing Sharon preach, she is one of those people who’s born to teach. I hope one day to hear Sharon proclaim the Liberation of us all in the Good News through the Resurrection of Jesus, following in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene on Easter Day.
But church, as a whole, is not about the personal ambitions of Sharon Kay Talley, David Justin Lynch, or any one person. Salvation should not be seen in terms of life after death for the individual, but rather in terms of bringing about the kingdom of God with a new social order. Salvation is about transforming the world, and transforming the church itself, into a reality consistent with the Kingdom of God. The liberation that comes from the Resurrection is what begins that.
South American Theologian Gustavo Guttierez tells us that traditional theology is a systematic collection of timeless and culture-transcending truths that remains static for all generations. Instead, theology should be in flux; it is a dynamic and ongoing exercise involving contemporary insights into knowledge, humanity, and history. According to Guttierez, theology is not just to be learned, it is something to be done. Theory must arise from practice, not the other way around. Theologians must therefore be immersed in the struggle for transforming society and proclaim the message of Jesus from that perspective. For Guttierez, material poverty is never good, but an evil to be opposed. “It is not simply an occasion for charity but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.” Poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others. “Poverty is not inevitable; collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.” And poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. To be poor is to be insignificant. Poverty means an early and unjust death.
The church, however, can only do so much with its own resources to bring about the Kingdom. Many of the things that need to be done must be done on a societal level using the necessary means to commandeer and redeploy resources. Our primary role as the church is to remain prophetic. We must continue to call out injustice, no matter whom it offends, just like the Old Testament prophets did, just like John the Baptist did, and just like Jesus Himself did. The Church must lead the way in freeing the people of God from an unjust socio-political situation, just as Moses did in leading the people of Israel out of slavery from Egypt in the Exodus, which resulted in the drowning of their pursuing oppressors. We cannot be the kind of leader Pontius Pilate was, more concerned about pleasing the crowd than doing what’s right.
The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s gift to us, given to us to liberate us, so that we might liberate others. We called to participate with God in building up God’s Kingdom. Salvation can and should be here and now, by setting those who are captive free, replacing retribution with reconciliation, replacing punishment with forgiveness, and above all, replacing hate with love. AMEN.