Theology in a New Key

Exodus 3:7-10

7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Isaiah 58:6-10

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Luke 6:17-26

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”


When music is written rules are followed

Beware of parallel fifths and octaves.
Avoid Tritones, also called the devil’s interval. Interestingly enough it is the interval that one hears on a siren or an alarm. Because it is somewhat strident or discordant.

Use contrary movements frequently.
For instance when the soprano line is ascending maybe the bass or the tenors descend.

And there are a whole set of conventions and patterns for chord progressions, balance, foreground and background, unity vs diversity. Etc….

In fact we get used to certain progressions and patterns.
Amen at the end of the doxology is a familiar pattern and chord progression.

Now of course there are always exceptions to the rules and the truly brilliant composer knows how to break the rules or vary from the traditional in new and surprising ways.

But in some ways the study of theology is very much like music.
There seem to be conventions and patterns and almost rules to follow about how to do theology.
Certain fundamentals to be followed, certain agreed terms and patterns.
And again occasionally there is a brilliant theologian who steps out of the box with something new or different, that seems to be a new revelation, but often those who break the rules are branded heretics and dismissed by the majority of the church.

And so if you look at Protestant Theology over the last couple of hundred years you see a major pattern of movement going from left to right and back and forth.

Protestantism as a religion based on the bible had some fundamentals. One of them being that the bible is our canon. A canon was a measuring stick. So the bible is our guide to our faith. The way we measure our faith is by comparing it to scripture.
So when the impact of modern science really took hold and there were perceived differences in scripture, liberal theologians took a less rigid view scripture and tried to incorporate the truth of science into their understanding of scripture. Instead of taking scripture less seriously they took it very seriously and studied it in intimate detail not just the words and the stories, but the bible’s history, its forms, its editors, its parallels and its conflicts within scripture, its languages, its culture and the historical situations in which it was written;
Believing that the truths of the scripture were eternal but that husks in which this truths were carried were from a prescientific world, and therefore less important.
So from a liberal point of view the creations stories are not about what literally happened, the world wasn’t created in a literal six days; but the creation stories are important stories about why we are here and why God created us and what our purpose is and what God’s purposes are…
And as Christians when we read the whole of scripture, those purposes come even clearer to light in Jesus Christ.
There was a progression to the left, with obvious resistance to the right.
And then in the thirties and fourties and fifties there was a movement back to the right with a theology called Neo-orthodoxy with its founder Karl Barth, which while not going back to biblical literalism embraced more fully classical themes of the Christian past such as grace, providence, sin and redemption.
While this resulted in a theological movement back to the right, it also kind of pushed some theologians to the political or social left, learning to read (as Karl Bath put it) the bible with one hand and the newspaper with the other. This kind of fueled some of the theological activism of the sixties which moved a little bit back to the left with a Biblical concern for social justice, especially as seen in the civil rights movement and Vietnam.

The point being that is theology seems to follow a bit of a pattern swinging back and forth a bit from left to right.

And to a certain extent it is somewhat predictable.

Just as certain chord progressions are in music.

For instance when we sing the Gloria Patri we come to that part where we sing. World without end.
On World without the chord is a Bflat with a minor seventh,
And it resolves quite nicely to the root chord which is an Eflat chord.
That is how we expect the chord to resolve

But if we change the Bflat with a minor seventh to a diminished chord, you can actually resolve the chord in different ways.
Harry demonstrates on the piano resolving it into different keys.

So by picking the diminished chord we are not quite sure how it will be resolved.
We may have an unexpected change.
A good composer would probably however put hints of this in the music ahead of time.
So while it might be somewhat unexpected we may see some continuity.

The point is that theologically there are times when the church or faith is in a kind of diminished chord and the resolution is not completely known.

Robert McAfee Brown former Theological Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and at Berkeley in California, fourty years ago wrote a book he called: Theology in a New Key, and it was his contention that we were entering a time when theologically we were not normally progressing from a minor seventh to the root chord, but that theologically we were in a diminished chord and how theology would resolve was a little bit up in the air.

The reason for the predictability he says over the years is that theology has been almost exclusively European and North American, mostly white, privileged, powerful and male.
That is the bias that most of our theology has been for centuries upon centuries, and since it is the theology of the powerful it is a theology that tends to keep the status quo and favours white, privileged, powerful males.

And so he writes a book Theology in New Key which suggests that theology might resolve into a different key from the traditional, from the predictable, from the way things have always been done.

And the people who will write this Theology in a new key will be those who have not had a voice in theology for thousands of years, for most of human history.

There is not one particular group, nor one particular agenda, but they are women and blacks and homosexuals and lesbians and those with mental illness and those with physical limitations
There are Asians and Africans and Latin Americans and there are the poor, and refugees, and victims of war and violence and oppression.
They are speaking from the position of the poor and powerless from all around the world.

We cannot lump them together or generalize about them but there is one thing they have in common. They have been denied a voice and have been without hope and now they are speaking, and that gives them hope.

And what they are saying is that theology should not accept the way the world is.
They are wondering why so much of the church in the so-called western world remains complacent.
They see that most theology and most of the church’s life lines up against the poor, because they do not change the status quo which keeps so many hungry and poor and oppressed and without much voice or power.

There is so much suffering in the world. This is not just a world problem it is a theological problem.
Because to the poor and the powerless it comes from a theology that says if you are rich and powerful it is because God made it that way.

And so today’s scripture is a scripture that the poor and powerless see as the heart of the gospel:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

This is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Most of us know Matthew’s version better.
It says blessed are the poor in Spirit.
We all can take comfort in that.
But Luke is right in your face. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry.
And then Luke adds Woes, which reminds us that are consequences to those who have and do not share.
To whom much is given, much is required says Jesus.

And the voices of the poor and oppressed say things like. This is the real message of Jesus or the primary message of Jesus. They say that the Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus who has come to bring good news to the poor and to release the captives and set free the oppressed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned by the Nazis and executed just before the war ended wrote in his Letters and Papers from prison:

There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.

How do the poor and oppressed see the message of the bible?

When I ask people about the message of the bible this is one of the common answers I get.
The message is that we are to have faith and believe in Jesus so that we will go to heaven and avoid hell.

The problem with it is, that even though there are references to heaven and hell in scripture they are very limited and not the primary message of Jesus, the gospels, nor of the Old Testament, nor of Paul who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament.
Paul never uses the word hell once. Jesus’ basic message is about what this world would look like in the kingdom of love came on earth as in heaven.
The Old Testament doesn’t talk about hell or heaven either

If you were to ask me what the message of the bible primarily is, I might say that God is love and Jesus came to show us that love, prove God’s love for us by dying on a cross, and Jesus invited us to that same love, to love one another, and when we love, Jesus lives in us and we in him.

But when you ask the poor they point to some pretty compelling scriptures.
In fact they say that a couple of the times Jesus talks about judgement and life after death…
…the criteria is about what you did for the poor.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me, a prisoner and you visited me, hungry and thirsty and you gave me something to eat or drink.
When was that Lord?
Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these you did it to me.
And story of the Rich man and Lazarus has the Rich Man in torment because he ignored the poor man at his gate.

So what would it be like to look at the bible from the eyes of the poor.
They Look at the Exodus story and see that God hears the cries of the oppressed and sends someone to free them. Not to heaven, but to actually free them from physical oppression and slavery and lead them towards a place where they will have food and water and land and crops and a home.

They look at Isaiah and other places and see that true worship is not about incense and music and beautiful buildings, but something else
6 “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. 7 Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives. (GNT)

They say that the bias of the church or western theology and of the rich has been a different message than what Jesus taught.

Maybe that is because talk of heaven and hell mediated by priests or through the church kept the church powerful for many, many, years. …For centuries.
And maybe it is because talk of heaven and hell meant that justice and equality was for an afterlife and therefore not so important in this life.
The poor and the slaves and the powerless would get their reward in heaven so it wasn’t nearly as important for Christians to act now. After all it is all about making heaven. That has been the thinking of many leaders in the church throughout the ages.

In conference on “Salvation Today” sponsored by the World Council of churches back in 1973, held in Bangkok the report stated in part:
Without the salvation of the churches from their captivity in the interests of dominating classes, races and nations, there can be no saving church.
Without liberation of the churches and Christians with structural injustice and violence there can be no liberating church for humanity…We must confess our misuse of the name of Christ by the accommodation of the churches to oppressive powers.
For that conference while Salvation is in part about faith in Christ and what happens after we die, it is also about economic justice, human dignity, hope where there is despair and the struggle for solidarity where there is alienation.

I preach to myself today as much to any or you. I like my way of life and the little luxuries I have.
When I go to vote there is naturally a desire within me to vote for the party which will help my life, or my retirement, or help Alberta, or help something that helps me, and to not think about voting for those who would help the poor and the oppressed;
And maybe I am too lazy or cynical to actually lobby any of the parties and say you need to do more about the poor and oppressed.
In fact, I have a tendency to bypass some of these scriptures about the poor in two ways.
The first is to not compare myself to the poor but to compare myself to the millionaires and the billionaires and point to the reality that the top eight billionaires in the world hold as much wealth as half the world.

I think the world need to address that, but that doesn’t get me off the hook.
The second tendency I have is to be cynical and say, “Well what can I really do? I can’t change the world and create equality. It is too big a job.”

You may say: Well if we are biased because we are rich, are not the poor and oppressed biased because they are poor and oppressed. You are right. And they would agree.

The point I think today is this: We need to listen to this theology in a new key. We need to listen to the poor, the oppressed and the victims and those who suffer.

I don’t have all the answers, the poor don’t have all the answers, and there is no one theologian or church that has all the answers and that is why we need to listen to each other and especially to the poor and the powerless and to those who suffer; and we need to be in dialogue with them and each other.

And maybe you and I, and at least I, need to be in more dialogue with the scriptures and with God.
And maybe you and I, and at least I, need to do more action. Not just talk about the poor and the powerless.
Maybe some days we need less theology and talk about salvation; and get out there and love our neighbour, and save people from all kinds of oppression, physical and spiritual. Amen.