Morning Worship: ‘The bush will always burn in the face of oppression’

Jesus is consistent in telling us that the voice of truth does not come from the dominant powers but from those who are subjugated,” said the Rev. James Walters. “The voice of the Gospel came from the Global South in the 20th century. They reminded the church in the North that the church did not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the poor. The Gospel is liberation.”

Walters spoke at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Of Turbulent Priests and Passionate Pastors,” and his text was Exodus 3:1-12, Moses’s encounter with the burning bush.

“The burning bush was God’s self-disclosure, the first revelation in the Bible,” Walters said. “God’s identity and will were revealed, and God’s will is to liberate the oppressed. Archbishop Óscar Romero said that each country has its own Exodus.”

In the 20th century, this passage spoke to people in Latin America looking to throw off the yoke of military dictatorships and to people in Africa and Asia looking to overthrow unjust European colonial rule. Their analysis was that European and Western theology had been corrupted by its closeness to power and a rebalancing was needed, but it was not quite that straight forward, Walters said.

“The story of European Christianity is the story of multiple threads,” he said. “The God of the burning bush chose moments [to be revealed]. We are celebrating 800 years of Magna Carta, which has influenced liberty throughout the world — including your Declaration of Independence. But the central contribution of Christian understanding [to it] has been air-brushed away.”

Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of King John, was “fired up the fire of Mt. Horeb,” and he had the will to liberate people from oppression because he believed that all people were created equal. Langton was following the lead of Pope Innocent III, who said that, in divine law, all are judged equally and there was no difference between persons of high or low estate.

Walters reminded the congregation that Langton was speaking to a king whose father, Henry II, had said to some courtiers, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?,” speaking of Thomas Becket, who was murdered by the king’s servants.

Walters also told the congregation about his experiences in a trip to Berlin, where he visited the “Topography of Terror” in the former Gestapo headquarters.

“It was a sobering exhibit and most people walked around and looked in silence,” he said. “I came across a propaganda poster which featured a man with cerebral palsy in a wheel chair. Underneath was written, ‘This man costs 60,000 Reichsmarks yearly. This is your money.’ It sickened me to see what Christian Europe allowed.”

Also on display were photographs of some of the Gestapo’s political prisoners. Walters said many of them were familiar: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and others who were Christians of different faiths but all stood for truth and liberation. Many paid with their lives. 

“There were tears of pride running down my face for the first of Horeb that burned in them in Europe’s darkest hour,” said Walters.

His next stop was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where the East German Stasi had been headquartered.

Walters was surprised by the number of files on church youth groups.

“The church had been a source of resistance and struggle,” he said.

A prayer meeting that started in the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1985 with less than 10 members grew to include over 8,000 people in 1989. On Oct. 2, 1989, Pastor Christian Führer led them outside the church as part of the Monday demonstration movement. They did not know what the police would do, Walters said. The police did not attack because there was nothing to attack; they were ready for everything but candles and prayer. Within a month, the Berlin Wall was taken down as demonstrations spread all over East Germany.

“I was confused by my trip,” Walters said. “How can the church play such a decisive role but continue to be written out of the European story? Liberation theology is not just for the Global South. The bush will always burn in the face of oppression. That fire is the soul of Europe. Let us be inspired by Moses, Langton and Romero, Bonhoeffer and Niemöller. Let us find the liberating fire in our own hearts.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Department of Religion, presided. The Rev. James Hubbard, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Clifford, Virginia, and a member of the Motet Choir, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. For the introit, the choir sang “God Be In My Head,” from “An Old Sarum Primer,” arranged by Walford Davies. The anthem for the morning was “Sit Down Servant” a traditional spiritual arranged by Linda Twine. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion provides suppose for this week’s services.