by Rev. Steve Jerbi
Few of us preach on the psalms and I imagine on Reformation Sunday the other texts are more enticing. Psalm 46 is a nod to the best known hymn by reformer Martin Luther - “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I’m guessing plenty of congregations will substitute the psalmody for the hymn.
I do believe there is a lens that the psalm gives to this day which deserves some added attention. It does, after all, contain the best known line ever to hit the church tchotchke market. What would our throw pillows and faux-barn wood signs say if not for “Be Still and Know That I am God.”
Inspirational posters love to place verse 10 over mountain tops and silent forests. The still waters of a lake with an overused script font draw us into pristine landscapes which appeal to our neo-transcendentalist sensibilities; I don’t go to church, I find god in nature.
Psalm 46 is not a wilderness text. Scripture has plenty of them, but this ain’t one.
Psalm 46 is an urban text. It is a city-dwelling text. God is in the midst of the city; (verse 5). And how do we feel about cities? We have a complicated relationship, especially within the United States of America.
Most often the “city narrative” of our country is wrapped in stories of decline. When we think about places that have been disinvested - Detroit, Milwaukee, and other rust-belt cities - we picture vacant lots and boarded up houses and factories. We think of violence and gangs and the streets of Chicago running red with blood. Or the reverse: the undoing of white flight and block busting not through community development but gentrification. Rents and property values skyrocket pushing out long-term residents and dramatically changing the character of the neighborhood.
What is the city narrative near you?
All of us, no matter our locale, have a city narrative. Suburbs are defined by the nearby metropolis. Rural communities are tied to larger communities particularly when it comes to commerce. Food and resources harvested in small towns are tied to larger markets beyond them. Cities too are tied to the communities around them, creating regional interdependance. This reinforces the notion that we all have a city narrative.
So, how does that story about the city get reformed in light of this Psalm of Zion? Can you imagine God dwelling in your city? Is it a safe place, does the river make glad the city? How is God a refuge to God’s people? What parts of that story need to get re-formed, re-shaped, and re-told?
I don’t believe you can talk about freedom in the United States of America without discussing white supremacy. This Sunday’s gospel is all about freedom.
Whiteness tells us a story that intends shapes how we see ourselves and others. I could imagine my white communities say, “We are descendants of Europeans and have never been slaves to anyone.” This story looks on the history of our country and saying it was built it on the foundation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That cornerstone of that pursuit was the myth of meritocracy, a boot-strap delusion that said freedom was universal and if you lost it that was due to poor decisions. What good is a promise of freedom when you’re a self-made man?
Racism, like all forms of oppression, justifies a society of us vs. them, winners and losers, powerful and (so-called) powerless. Women are told, “people’s behavior is not always about your being a woman." Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor tells trans-women using the bathroom could make other women “feel intruded upon.” And, apparently at Founders Brewery black people aren’t even black. This pattern affirms those in privileged position to stay there, while subjecting those that are different. When all the world tells you you’re right and right where you should be, why would you need freedom?
And isn’t that the constant myth that puts us at odds with God’s desire for our liberation? The exodus journey is rooted in God’s people forgetting whose strong hand delivered them. Time and again we make the story of freedom about our power rather than God’s power. We forget the powers of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome could only be overcome through the work of God.
As Jesus enters the scene we come to recognize that the captor is sin itself. Place the theological framework of Incurvatus in se (curved in on oneself) and this text in our modern context and we can hear ourselves saying “We’ve never been slaves. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
We don’t seek freedom because we don’t even recognize we’re captive. White communities deny white privilege. Rich communities reject a critical class analysis. Gender. Sexual Orientation. Identity. Educational status. Immigration status. Privileged communities don’t believe they need to be freed because either they’ve never been enslaved or they got free all by themselves.
This Reformation Sunday, though, we’re reminded that we all need to get free. That freedom won’t be won on our own. No political candidate will deliver our liberation. No court ruling will establish justice. No works of our own hands will secure salvation. It is the transforming power of Jesus that gets us free. It is how an instrument of the Empire’s flexing becomes a symbol of salvation. Only when we know that Jesus brings us freedom can we let go of all the false gods that enslave us. We can turn away from models that put power over others and toward a beloved community of power together. In this place we shall be free indeed.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.