Spiritual Captivity

UUA Staff Chapel service February 7, 2006 by Kenneth Sutton

Chalice Lighting

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

Hannah Senesh

Responsive Reading

Worship in Song #592 “The Free Mind”

Sharing of Joys and Concerns


Worship in Song #20 “Be Thou My Vision”


From “Tending the Fire,” a keynote address to the Midwinter Gathering of Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns by Ellen Hodge:

In this culture that we live in, we don’t very often allow ourselves to be connected to our ancestors in a conscious manner. I think that that is one of the things that leads to the spirit of Yankee do-it-yourselfism that gives us the sense that we can sustain ourselves, by golly, and we don’t need any help and the people of the past, well, they weren’t as developed as we are so, what do we need from them? And thus we are a rootless, migrating, technological people who don’t have a really good sense of who we are, of what past has shaped us, and of what we might become.

Well, I want to tell you a story. This is an ancient story that has survived for thousands of years and has come down to us from our ancestors. I have a sense that anything that survived that long because generation after generation saw meaning in it is something worth talking about. . . .

Now when the story begins, there’s this small, not very powerful people. There’s a famine, so they move to the great nation, which has a lot of food. This small people had a very wise leader who was recognized for his ability to advise and who understood trends and could sometimes even tell the leader of the great nation what was going to happen and what the leader needed to do to prepare.

So this small people lived quite contentedly in the midst of the powerful nation. But then that generation died, another generation came up, and generations passed until the king that grew up in the great nation never knew that there had been a wise man among that small people. . . .

So he looked around and he said, . . . “Well, you know, I don’t see why we should have to do all that work. Hmm, look at this: this alien population. Why, it wouldn’t matter much if they did it.” So he made himself some slaves.


Sermon: Spiritual Captivity

One of the strengths, and weaknesses, of my Quaker faith is looking for the spiritual meaning of stories, the metaphor, the archetype, the lesson to apply to one’s own life. It is in that context that I want to look at this religious story of captivity and liberation: not to dismiss or discount the evil and violence of enslavement and oppression, but to assert that stories like this must be read not as objective history but as subjective accounts of a people’s relationship to the divine mystery. And not only these archetypal religious stories, but also the mythologized stories of our history, and the unspoken stories that shape our cultures, and the stories of our families.

It is perhaps my favorite act of syncretism to celebrate Pesach, Passover. My love for Passover started in 1989, when my friend Ellen Hodge retold the story of the enslavement and deliverance of the Israelites as part of a keynote address to a gathering of the organization then known as Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. She retold how Pharaoh tried to get the Hebrew midwives to practice genocide; how Moses became the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, killed an Egyptian overseer, fled Egypt, encountered the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” and returned to Egypt to free his people.

She retold how, after plagues, “each one worse than the one before,” Pharaoh lets the Hebrews leave; how they escape across the sea of reeds; how they wander, complaining, in the wilderness; and how God says, “I’m gonna give you all this little list. It’s a pretty short list. It’s just your basic guidelines, how these people are going to get along. OK? There are no Egyptians making up laws for them, so I’m going to give you some teachings.”

She retold how the forty years in the wilderness reshaped the Hebrews from slaves into a free people; and how they came to stand on the brink of the promised land, where Moses retold their whole story for them and instructed them to remember their story. I wish I could just read her retelling to you, she’s that good a storyteller.

And then Ellen said,

This story can mean a number of things, and there are things about it that I can’t tell you; you could better tell me:

Whether this band of people in this room tonight, is in bondage.

Or whether this band of people is standing, shoeless, in front of a strange fire, getting instructions which are not pleasant.

Whether this band of people is living in the wilderness and having a damn hard time.

Whether this group of people is on the brink of the promised land.

Ellen did what you do at a Passover seder: she retold the story, and she reminded us to put ourselves into it.

Not only were they in bondage, I’ve been in bondage.

Not only were they inspired, I’ve been inspired.

Not only have they been lost and wandering, I’ve been lost and wandering.

Not only were they delivered, I was delivered.

Furthermore, I may still be in bondage, or still lost and wandering. The Passover story focuses on the deliverance, and helps us inhabit that story. I think we can learn a lot by inhabiting the stories of captivity as well, because the reality is that we are often in bondage rather than free.

As a simple, non-religious example, take the story of the Zero Sum Game. In a game of chess, only one person can win. (Of course, it’s possible to draw, but I’m certainly not a good enough chess player for that to be part of my picture.) So the Zero Sum Game is an accurate enough model for chess. The problem is that this win/lose model is all too often the model we learn for how to exist with other people in all sorts of situations: grading on a curve; being concerned that desserts are divided equally; giving out raises.

We might learn win/lose so deeply that we apply it to our personal relationships, or to our spiritual lives: If that myth/story/theology/practice is affirmed, then mine is going to be less affirmed. When we do this, we have become captives of the Zero Sum Game. One of the aspirations of Unitarian Universalism seems to me to be to escape this religious zero sum game and to honor a variety of religious sources.

Or look at being part of a traditionally marginalized group: We often learn to internalize our oppression. When that happens, we’ve allowed someone else’s story, someone else’s version of reality, to confine us, to limit us. When I first came out as a gay man, and many times since, I’ve been on a journey from captivity to freedom. Being in captivity is real—even when it’s a captivity of the mind or spirit rather thanof the body.

So what can we learn from the archetypal stories of captivity? Let’s go back to the Hebrews in Egypt. You remember why they were there in the first place, right? There was famine, and Jacob and his family went to Egypt to get food. At the invitation of Jacob’s son Joseph, who had come to have high office with the Egyptians, they remained in Egypt.

First way to accept captivity: in order to save your lives, to protect your family. There are still places in this country where it is dangerous to come out of the closet. The vast majority of the world is an unsafe place for gay and lesbian people. The closet is a survival mechanism.

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us. . . . So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. . . .

Exodus 1:8–11 (JPS)

Second way to become enslaved: allow your neighbors to forget your shared history; neglect your relationship with your neighbors. To stay with the story of gay people: Once you come out, you have to keep coming out, or your neighbors will put you back in. We’re seeing the attempt right here in Massachusetts with marriage.

But let’s step back a little farther in the story. We’ll find something surprising and confusing:

Genesis 41 is part of the story of Joseph (and this is the Joseph of the many-colored coat with the doting father and jealous brothers, but we won’t go that far back in the story today, but we will go back before any of the rest of Jacob’s family has come to Egypt), anyway, Joseph interpreted dreams that Pharaoh had about seven fat cows and seven lean cows who ate the seven fat cows. Because he interpreted the dreams, Joseph is made chancellor and he stockpiles food for seven years against the famine. When the famine comes, he rations out food to the Egyptians. Through a complicated story of family reunion worthy of a soap opera, he is reunited with his father and brothers, who move to Egypt. Now here’s the twist:

Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh���s palace.

Genesis 47: 13–14 (JPS)

The next year, when the money’s all gone, Joseph takes “all their livestock” in exchange for food. And the year after that, they came to him and said:

“We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”

So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. . . .

And they said, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”

Genesis 47:18–21, 25 (JPS)

So we’re back at the first way to become enslaved: self-preservation. But look who did it: Joseph created the agrarian policies that paved the way for the enslavement of his descendents.


I haven’t figured out what the lesson there is, or a clever parallel for gay people. But that’s why I want us all to dwell deeply in these and other archetypal stories—eventually one of us will decipher the lesson, the situation to avoid or to improve upon.

And we need to enhabit all the parts of the story: When have I been Joseph, planting the seeds of evil? When have I been Pharaoh, hardening my heart? When have I been like the Israelites, pining for the familiarity of Egypt and complaining about the demands of freedom? And when have I been Moses, stuttering and resisting, but eventually giving in to the inspired drive to bring my people to freedom?

Closing Hymn

Worship in Song #104 “When Israel Was in Egypt Land”

Closing Words

There is a land of pure delight, where saints immortal reign.
Infinite day excludes the night, and pleasures banish pain.
Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood, stand dressed in living green,
So to the Jews old Canaan stood, while Jordan rolled between.

O could we make our doubts remove, those gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love with unbeclouded eyes.
Could we but climb where Moses stood, and view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood should fright us from the shore.

William Billings, 1786, words to the shapenote tune “Jordan” by Isaac Watts