Last week there was an evangelical uproar about the presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preaching what some have called a candidate for
Jose Chirino, leader of Venezuelan slave uprising. Executed, dismembered, publicly exhibited. Now honoured in Caracas.
‘the worst sermon ever’. You can read it for yourself here and get a feel for some of reaction and criticism it has drawn.
Those who know me or have read me well, will know that I am no defender of sermons. A friend calls me ‘Slayer of Monologues’ because of my passionate crusade to try and get people to stop listening to sermons as their primary source of biblical engagement, and start actually reading the Bible. So it is ironic that I might bother with a bit of preaching at all. However, as a case study, it illustrates some of what is deeply wrong with the whole system of preaching – how ‘verbal’ it is – when text is cultural and textural and symbollic and political. That preaching is monological and hampered by disconnection, distance and dissociation from our lived contexts, and suffers lopsided power.
Further, the sermon centers on a passage that I have written passionately on in response to a context in which spirits and children and power were dangerously combined: Jesus placed a child in the midst, not on the stage. I, perhaps with many of the critics of Katharine Jefferts Schori’s sermon, do remain cautious of the dangers in romanticising children and gifts, as much as I remain sceptical that we routinely underestimate the qualities of children and their gifts.
Schori reflects on a text from Acts16, in which young girl, enslaved and exploited for her ‘python spirit’ (euphemistically rephrased ‘spirit of divination’ in our english texts) by her masters. The spirit causes her to expose the apostles, Paul and Silas, as “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation”. I have to admit – I’ve been called worse things, and certainly so has Schori. (Don’t take my summary or Schori’s version though – do read the text of Acts 16:16-40 for yourself.
Schori’s controversial interpretation narrates Paul becoming annoyed with the girl and delivering her from the spirit, which then triggers reprisals and public upset, landing Paul and Silas in jail.
Schori puts an unorthodix spin on Paul’s frustration – suggesting that he failed to see the ‘gift’ and its beauty in the girl.
This is what has set the cat among the pigeons.
People can be extremely defensive of Paul.
From the vagabond life of a social outcast, a betrayer of his social and ethnic caste, in and out of trouble, often at the centre of violence and controversy, a dissident even in the new Christ-follower movement, Paul has been rewritten as a leader, a pastor, a teacher, a theologian, an apostle with a capital A.
I spend almost everyday reading and studying Paul. I don’t claim to know him better than anyone else. But to me, he seems like a ‘few-screws-loose-radical-genius’. And personally, what’s not to love about that?! And I’m prepared to listen to the voice of the Living God through such a one, though I’m not surprised if the Galatians resisted his ‘pastoral’ side as he spoke of castrations, and the Corinthians marginalised him in favour of other more respectable candidates like Apollos.
He was complicated.
We are very accustomed to thinking that an evil spirit is all evil, and in contrast the use of the gifts of the holy Spirit are always benign. (Though actually we’ve probably seen enough ‘annoying’ worship music not to cling too tightly to this one.)
What has not been considered in the critiques I read of Schori is the context she was speaking to. She explicitly engages the history and topography of her Venezuelan context. She tells us that she is mindful of where she is, and what has been done in the name of the gospel – making slaves, seizing beauty on the very ground where she stands with the text open.
“One of the gifts of this remarkable island is its diverse mixture of desert and tropics on land and sea – and even more so, the beauty of its different peoples, languages, and heritages. Yet the history of this place tells some tragic stories about the inability of some to see the beauty in other skin colors or the treasure of cultures they didn’t value or understand.”
Let me think for a moment – if I were speaking in Venezuela, a country whose history and culture has been seared by European-driven african and hispanic slavery, both in the enslaving and in the freeing, how would I locate my listeners in the text? Where would I find them?
For those who have been enslaved – no matter how terribly – there is a deep truth that we are more than our masters told us. Even when others liberate us – we are still deeply more than ‘just’ a liberated slave, more than a post-victim, a slave-survivor. In slavery, as in freedom, we were gifts and character and content.
When a Bishop, whose primary role is pastoral, addresses a culture that might be seen as having only a slave identity and then a liberated identity – whose other strands have been lost by history’s priorities and politics – I think she does well to connect with her co-readers in the beauty and giftedness, shown in the text by a clear action of repeated truth telling by the slave.
Although her audience are not slaves nor probably even sons and daughters of slaves, I wonder how strong the slave story still is in Venezuela?
I reflect on how strongly the colonial story still marks our public discourse in Australia.
So heavy is the history of an ‘Australian’ identity of convicts from England, migrants and hope-seekers from Western europe and run away rebels from Ireland, that mainstream Australia sometimes has trouble in recognising itself in the mirror, and trouble understanding our place of privilege and the burden of host we now owe those who are on the wrong end of the law, migrants, hope-seekers and run-away rebels arriving in our midst.
Schori shows an understanding of where her hearers might assume themselves in the text. And by the way, this is where I would locate myself in the text too. I have far more in common with the slave girl, who has been abused, and exploited for her gifts, then ‘released’ with no further thought for my path.
(In Acts 16, she disappears after this cameo – and we are left thinking more naturally of the Philippian christians gathering around the comfortable persona of the wealthy and hospitable Lydia).
Schori speaks to a culture who might hear in this ‘liberation’ text the message ‘Slavery is evil! The agency of the slave is from an evil source. All that a slave was and did was overrun by a stronger force of evil than even the basic human participation in the imago dei.’
I would actually think this to be the greater heresy – that evil is stronger than the life giving, primal patterning of God in the world. I think evil has a red hot go. No joke. But the ambiguity of humanness is that we are not totally depraved – we are not for the scrap heap. God has declared it ‘not so’ in the flood, the exodus, the exilic remnant and ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We do not belong in kingdoms of darkness – we were made in the image of the one who speaks Light. Evil is not Lord. Jesus is. Depravity is not total. Salvation is. What fascinates me is the calls of ‘liberal’ and ‘heresy’ over an interpretation that to my ears declares Jesus as sovereign Lord.
From the scoffs of many Biblical scholars posted under her sermon transcript and in blogs here and there, (admitting a very broad range of professional to arm chair varieties are represented) it is obvious that there is generally a more natural affiliation with Paul and Silas – commanders, preachers, articulaters who are in control, free-ranging gospellers – even when imprisoned they are evangelistic victors! Let it not be always so.
It is true that Schori didn’t tie her sermon up neatly with ‘and the way to unity is through salvation in Christ, found by the grace of God in the atoning work of the cross.’ like every good conservative evangelical sermon should. I can’t say why she didn’t – however she was preaching to a group of Christians. It is likely that they already know this. It might be taken as read. (Which leads me back to my quandries about what preaching is really for?)
I wonder if, in the eyes of the evangelical critics, a reference to the cross would have ensured this sermon flew by under the radar like many many many other less than enthralling and mildly to wildly inaccurate sermons each week?
Even if they don’t like her exegesis, the arbiters of ‘rightly dividing the word’ might humbly learn from Schori.
We cannot always read our bibles as if the important characters and good guys are always the preachers or evangelists.
It doesn’t help us at all in our own relationships with leadership and preachers in our communities. And it doesn’t allow the surprising character of God to take central place in the text.
For a realistic reader, we know that finding a critique in the text of the way Paul and Silas went about their evangelism in this instance, doesn’t detract from the importance of proclaiming the goodnews.
I am not going to stop being a disciple or a peace maker and making disciples and peacemakers or seeking (as I think Jesus asks those who would follow him to do) just because Paul had an anger threshold. In fact, I learn more about what is important in goodnewsing from this text, than if Paul had been the model of good grace, pastoral senstitivity and self restraint.
Does not anyone find it disturbing that Paul wasn’t motivated to deliver the slave girl from human or spiritual oppression out of compassion – only when he felt overwhelmed and thwarted? Hardly text-book ministry there!
Katharine Jefferts Schori belongs to a hierarchical ecclesial system I find philosophically incompatible with the gospel – as incompatible as slavery. (However, I find the gospel remarkably resilient and it breaks through in beautiful and redeeming ways, perhaps against all odds, even in our strange church systems.) But she is also a gifted person herself. She flies aeroplanes, she plays the harp, she looks quite good in purple (important for the episcopally inclined) and she knows that even places where evil has set up shop, are still places where the goodness, truth and beauty of God is not irrepressibly silenced. How could we live with hope on this planet if it were not the case?
As Kuyper dramatically proclaims
“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’