From Madagascar to Minnesota: Belonging and Voice and Gospel

From Madagascar to Minnesota: Belonging and Voice and Gospel
David R. Weiss – August 1, 2021

Sermon for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Saint Paul, Minnesota
A progressive, Open and Affirming, Creation Justice congregation (www.spucconsummit.org)

Text: 2 Corinthians 3: 2-6a; 12 / Verse 12: Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.

Prayer: Gathering God, from the many places of our lives we are gathered here in this moment. Bless my speaking. Bless this community’s listening. And bless our belonging to one another. Amen.

*           *           *

My message continues our series on Belonging … in three chapters: Madagascar, Corinth, and Saint Paul.

Chapter One: Madagascar. The country, but also the 2005 animated movie. Some of you may know the story, but for those who don’t, here’s a quick re-cap.

The movie features Marty, a zebra, Alex, a lion, Melman, a giraffe, and Gloria, a hippo. They’re talking animals—after all, it’s an animated film. We first meet them in Central Park Zoo in New York, where we listen in as the four friends debate the lure of life in the wild versus the comfort of life in the Zoo.

Before long, however, that debate comes to life when, through a wild series of misadventures, they find themselves ship-wrecked on the island of Madagascar. All four animals are initially quite dismayed, but after being befriended by a pack of entertaining lemurs, they begin to explore the island.

Marty, Melman, and Gloria quickly decide that Madagascar is veritable paradise. Their favorite foods are fresher than ever and all around them. Life in the wild tastes very good indeed. Alex, however, has a problem. Raised on a diet of fresh steak in the zoo, you could say that his favorite food is also fresher than ever and all around him—except he knows it by name.

The movie is filled with humor, but it’s the lion’s crisis that carries the plot forward. Alex, himself, is deeply distressed to find that when he looks at his friends he begins to see them AS STEAK. It’s equally nerve-wracking for Marty, Melman, and Gloria, who try to talk sense to Alex, but he grows hungrier by the day. The movie nearly careens from comedy into tragedy , when the circle of friends make a saving discovery: there are fish swimming in the bay, and Alex can satisfy his hunger by eating fish.

This is the “save-the-day” feel-good moment of the movie. Now everyone can live happily ever after. Except, of course, the fish, but no one seems to mind.

Why? Because of all the animals that appear in the movie, only the fish don’t talk. So they never become characters in their own right. If the fish had been given voices like the sea creatures in Finding Nemo, you can bet more than a few kids would’ve bawled in protest while Alex resolved his food issues at the fish’s expense.

But having been rendered voiceless, they become, quite literally, fair game for resolving the crisis without anyone feeling bad for them. And this is crucial: someone—in this case, the writer—rendered the fish voiceless.

You can argue that as carnivores Lions must “by nature” eat meat of some sort. That’s true, but a film filled with talking animals isn’t really about “nature”; it’s about friendship. And belonging.

Ultimately, the movie carries a message that might be unintended, but is crystal clear to any kid who knows that in other tales … fish talk. The message is that until every person becomes a character with a voice, you really don’t know whether you’ve resolved your issues or not.

Boom.

As an aside: this is EXACTLY what Critical Race Theory is about. The story of who we are as a nation only works as a feel-good story if we render certain people voiceless. American history—past and present—have been taught by a process in which white people decide who gets a voice. And Critical Race Theory demands that we ask hard questions about our own history, our national story—questions that hinge on whose voices are heard.

Chapter Two: Corinth.

During Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea he proclaimed a message of belonging. More than simply proclaiming it, he practiced it. Persons deemed outcast because of their ethnicity or disease or social status were welcomed by Jesus. Women were included; children were blessed. Jesus went so far as to dare his followers to behold him in every person they encountered—and then to act accordingly.

This was a bold vision of community. In the early decades after Jesus, Paul became the leading missionary of the Jesus’ movement. Planting churches around the Mediterranean, he carried this vision of deep belonging far across the Greco-Roman world.

He was determined to shape churches so that they would become communities that echoed the impulse of gracious welcome that so animated Jesus’ own ministry.

But Roman society, like the Jewish society of Jesus’ day, was deeply stratified—shaped by power dynamics that “ordered” every relationship, every event, every aspect of society. Which meant it was all too easy for early churches to be misshaped by these values. Especially since these early churches reflected the same breadth of social diversity as in Roman society at large.

Paul is adamant, however, that in the church something NEW is unfolding. He uses the metaphor of the human body to say, yes, we display many differences, but we belong to the same body. We all have value. And whether we are feet or eyes or legs or ears, we belong to one another.

Elsewhere he says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28). He isn’t saying these identities no longer exist, he’s saying that in Christ, differences no longer have power to divide us.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul explodes in anger when addressing their practice of communion—the Christian ritual that seals our belonging (1 Cor. 11:17-22, 29). When they gathered for worship, like many early Christian communities, they shared a sort of potluck meal, followed by telling stories and singing hymns, and culminating in the Lord’s Supper. But in Corinth the wealthier members came early with their food and feasted, while those who were servants or slaves arrived later, finding only crumbs. By the time they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, the divisions between the haves and the have-nots, far from disappearing, were freshly etched in the hunger and humiliation of those who arrived last. It was precisely what the meal was not supposed to be.

Finally, in our text today, Paul uses another image to evoke the profound newness of Christian community. You may know that the Greek word EKKLESÍA, which we’ve come to translate as “church,” in Greek simply means, “an assembly.”

But in the Greco-Roman imagination—in the world where Paul’s churches were founded—EKKLESÍA meant a very specific Assembly. It hearkened back to the original Greek ideal of self-governing cities, each of which met as an Assembly. Well, the free-born male citizens met as an Assembly. They gathered to discuss the affairs of the city, to assess its well-being—and its needs, and to pool their wisdom in charting a path forward. That’s what Assemblies do.

So when Paul calls these early Christian communities EKKLESÍA, he’s harnessing a vibrant image from their worldview and telling them, This is what Christian communities do. They gather as an Assembly to discuss the affairs of their community, to assess their well-being—and their needs, and to pool their wisdom in charting a path forward.

But our text goes one step further, although we miss its audacious claim the same way we likely missed the voiceless fish in Madagascar. The last phrase said, “Since we have such a hope—(which is the Spirit-filled presence of Christ in our midst)—we act with great boldness.”

Did you catch that? Of course, you didn’t. How could you? Most of our translations completely hide it, and none of them make it clear. The Greek word translated here as “act” is PARRESÍA. And it can mean “act,” but in an Assembly, in an EKKLESÍA, PARRESÍA has a very specific meaning. Roughly translated as “free speech,” it names the speech exercised by—and only permitted to—free-born male citizens in the Assembly. In that context PARRESÍA is that speech and nothing else. It is the free, frank, bold, deliberative, future-charting speech of the Assembly.

Of the 62 Bible translations I looked at (thanks to biblegateway.com; I don’t own 62 Bibles!), 36 translated it with some form of “act”; 26 translated it using some form of “speech”; but not one found a way to clarify this as the “free speech of the Assembly.” Of course, Paul’s original audience knew that. But we don’t. And so we miss the power of Paul’s carefully chosen words.

But there’s one thing more. In the EKKLESÍA that Paul founded to carry forward the Spirit of Jesus, PARRESÍA—the free, frank, bold, deliberative, future-charting speech of the Assembly—belongs to everyone. By virtue of baptism, each person is made equally and fully a citizen of the realm of God, and each person is commissioned to discuss the affairs of the Assembly, to assess its well-being—and its needs, and to pool their wisdom in charting a path forward. Because we belong to one another that much.

Think back to Madagascar for a moment. Paul is declaring that in the Christian Assembly there can be NO FISH WITHOUT VOICES. NONE.

Boom.

Chapter Three: Saint Paul. This is the shortest chapter, because, in the true spirit of PARRESÍA, this is our chapter … to write together in the years ahead. So I offer just a few things to think about … as an EKKLESÍA.

The spirit of the Jesus movement has always been challenged by the powers that be in the world. Both Roman and Jewish leaders came after Jesus. By the end of the first century, women in Paul’s churches found their voices again silenced. By the end of the fourth century, from Constantine onward, the church became so entangled in worldly power that for millennia it has not only often reflected the world’s preferred values, it has often baptized them as its own.

But the Spirit persists. Eventually, in many EKKLESÍA, women regained their voice, although not everywhere. But here women’s voices are loud and clear. Eventually LGBTQ persons claimed their place in the EKKLESÍA, although not everywhere. And there continue to be places where terror seeks to silence them. But as an Open and Affirming congregation, their voices are welcomed here.

But there is so much work yet to do here in Saint Paul—which names both our congregation, our EKKLESÍA and also our wider community.

As we wrestle with the meaning of racial justice—especially justice for Black and brown lives—how will we make certain that their voices matter in the EKKLESÍA?

As we consider the long legacy of broken treaties, the mistreatment and worse of Native Americans and their lands, how will we make certain that their voices matter in the EKKLESÍA?

As state legislatures across the country attempt to “render fish voiceless” through laws that make voting more difficult for persons of color, how will we ensure, at least here in Minnesota, that their voices are valued and their votes are counted?

So many voices longing to be heard!

Indeed, what about fish—as fish? How might we hear the voices of entire species, dying oceans, smoke-filled air, lands parched by drought or drilled for oil? Science tells us that we are truly ecologically interwoven with all life on Earth. What would it mean to affirm that the voice of these non-human “citizens of creation” must also be heard if we are to faithfully discuss the affairs of the whole Earth Assembly, to assess its well-being—and its needs, and to pool their wisdom alongside our own in charting a path forward in a time of such ecological peril?

These are just some of the conversations that await us. They are undeniably daunting. But we become a more Spirit-filled EKKLESÍA with each new voice that joins us.

PARRESÍA is the free, frank, bold, deliberative, future-charting speech of the church. It is the sound of Gospel playing out in communities where we all belong to one another.

Boom. May it be so. Amen.

*           *           *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

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