Wednesday, 09 May 2012 00:00

"Blessed are the Cheesemakers", May 6, 2012

“Blessed are the Cheesemakers”
Exodus 3:7-15
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M Donley
May 6, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Gayla Marty is our resident expert on all things Tunisian.  She is the unearther of ancient people and the challenger of old patterns of belief.  She deconstructs the old belief and then constructs a belief system out of the rubble of what was—picking up the hopeful and liberative fragments and creating a mosaic of belief, story, art, and vision with which we face and encounter the future.  Thank you for encouraging us to remember Perpetua as one of our matron saints in our great cloud of witnesses.

In the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire was spreading across the known world.  It was exerting its control.  It had the military, the media, the economic system under its thumb.  It was destined to succeed and anyone who resisted were considered fools, for Christ’s sake.

Carthage had been devastated by Rome and Christianity was part of the resistance movement.  Therefore it was outlawed. Its adherents were executed publicly—kind of like the Romans used to do with crucifixion.  Only this time it was by being drawn and quartered or being sent to the wild animals in an arena with drooling fans watching.  Perpetua’s diary reads like a scene from the Hunger Games.  Rome liked to flex its muscle, especially when challenged.  Killing for sport and social control was the way of the world.


Perpetua’s brand of Christianity was called the New Prophecy Movement. They enjoyed ecstatic visions of the Holy Spirit.  They practiced fasting and chastity.  They lifted up and recognized prophets, their cloud of witnesses.  Names like Perpetua, Montanus, Priscilla and Maxmilla were the leaders of such a movement.  Sometimes they were called the Montanists.

Rita Brock in her book Saving Paradise writes, “Followers of the New Prophecy believed they lived near the time of the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit.  The movement’s female prophets, bishops, and priests represent a Christian ideal found in Galatians 3:28, which proclaimed that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male not female, Jew nor Gentile.  A strong this-worldly sensibility governed their apocalyptic imagination.

Christ appeared to them in female form, and she prophesied that the New Jerusalem would descend into their village of Pepouza in central Anatolia, today’s Turkey.  The movement endured until the fifth century.” (p. 72.)

In one of her visions, Perpetua received cheese from the good shepherd. Their opponents mocked them as “Bread and Cheesers”, because they used cheese in the Eucharist. Of course, Gayla would identify with them, as would several dairy farm daughters.

Another more subtle piece of the social control was Pater Familias.  It was part of Pax Romana—what kept the order. It was ancient modernity, if you will, accepted truth.  You did what the father of the household wanted.  It’s what they used to call family values.  Control systems usually hide behind such nostalgic platitudes.  Almost 1800 years before the Equal Rights Amendment, we had Perpetua and her ragtag resistance movement of Christians.  She openly and defiantly challenged all norms of Roman control, even family control. Perpetua’s father pleaded with his daughter to renounce Christianity and live.  But she saw the sinister consequences of collusion with such a system.  She chose to die free rather than live as a slave.

The pivotal story of the Hebrew Bible is the people’s liberation from slavery.  God commissioned stuttering, bastard child, adoptee, felon on the run Moses to deliver the Hebrew people from the dismal existence under the Egyptian Empire.

It was no longer time to placate and get by.

It was time to go in a different direction—away from slavery and toward a land flowing with milk and honey.  The Bible constantly points us toward this land.  Whether it is the Exodus story, the Hebrew Prophets, or Jesus himself turning over the tables of the moneychangers.  The word is still the same.  Let my people go.

When Moses was given the vision of the Promised Land, God did not tell him it was a great land for farming or building or anything like that.  Rather, it was a land flowing with milk and honey.  Milk and honey: made for infants to feed and grow and find new birth.  The land flowing with milk and honey is a vision of the future, a paradise.

One of my favorite scenes in the film “Life of Brian” is the people listening to the Sermon on the Mount.  Before there was a sound system, Monty Python imagined what happened to the words once they got down the mountain.  In one exchange, the people far away from Jesus are trying to get it right.  Why did Jesus just say “Blessed are the Greeks”?  When Jesus said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, the people at the foot of the mountain, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”  Then someone said, “It’s not meant to be taken literally, it means blessed are those who work with dairy products in general.”

Think of the people who work the land of milk and honey.  These are farmers, laborers, people with calloused hands and farmers’ tans.  People who tried to do the best for their families, to provide for themselves, honor their ancestors and leave something for the next generation.  It’s a noble ideal.

But like many farmers, they were lured into loans to buy bigger, better equipment.  When the bottom dropped out of the market, Pharaoh called in the loans.  They had the land flowing with milk and sweetness and now it was sold off.  It’s an old story. Pretty soon, you realize that Pharaoh doesn’t have your best interest in mind.  And you wish someone or maybe God would come along with a burning bush and declare an end to it all.

What if we really did embrace Blessed are the Cheese makers?  I’m not talking about Cheese Heads.  That would be Packer fans.  I’m talking about Cheese makers, people who work in the dairy industry.  People who are farmers and have trouble making ends meet.  People who are distrustful of big agriculture, because it chokes them out.  Cheese makers are the peasants—the farmers, the factory workers, those living on a fixed income.  Those who make what the rest of us consume. The cheese makers took their sheep with them into Midian.  They survived on quails and holy manna. But also on milk and cheese.  Blessed are those on the journey toward a new day. You can be a cheese maker too.  Be on your way to the Promised Land.

There’s a fine editorial in today’s Star Tribune by Dane Smith.  While he doesn’t use these words, I think he is implying that protecting, the cheese makers, the poor, is a central part of our democracy.  When we don’t do that, we’re in danger of backing Pharaoh.  Backing Pharaoh is the opposite of the ideal of the US experiment in democracy.

What do you do when you go on a journey?  You make bread, you set cheese aside for another day.  You age it.  You can’t consume it right away, like milk.  You have to have plans and help and trust in the future.  Some would call that faith.

Peacemakers can’t do their work without the cheesemakers.  The cheesemakers are those who work behind the scenes to get things done.

You can spend all of your time and energy wailing against Pharaoh. It awful and powerful and crazy-making.  And we might resist such domination.  But the resistance can’t be everything.  We need to be looking toward something and we need to support each other in the midst of our work.

When Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world was going to end.  He said he’d plant a tree.  What do you do if all hell is breaking loose? Someone has to make the cheese.  Someone has to remember that something this good and this good for you takes planning and preparation.  Anyone can flee with unleavened bread.  But it takes a visionary to be a cheese maker.  Blessed are the cheese makers.

Yesterday, we held a memorial service here for Joan Fritz, a great Sacred Harp Singer who was as humble as they came.  She was humble, frugal and full of joy.  She taught children at a daycare that she ran, and delighted watching them grow at the Mayday parade every year.  She was a cheese maker.  She was a part of the back to the earth movement in the 70’s.  She built a house, milked goats and raised her kids with those kinds of values.  And we were blessed to know her.

What do you do for the long term?  How do you invest of yourself?  Your studies and your class work is a piece of this. What story do you want to pass on?  What wisdom have you gained? That is your cheese making.  Cheese makers are the essential building blocks of the faith that lives beyond a day.  Cheese makers see the Promised Land.

Listen to them, and while you’re at it, make some cheese yourself.  Store away a bit for the people that follow you.  Pay it forward.

Be like Perpetua and see the vision of the future. A vision that planted the seeds of resistance and hope to generations.  Set aside your best self to nurture and delight those who go with you on the journey.  And remember that your role is never insignificant one the way to the Promised Land.