Sunday, September 4, 2016 / Year C
All Saints’ Episcopal Church / Brooklyn, NY
I have two younger brothers who are both in their 20s. And one of those brothers, my middle brother William, has always been the black sheep of the family. Not at all in a troublesome way but more like: we all like to go to bed late and sleep in, but Will likes to get up early. We all like to eat elaborate meals and fancy foods–Will is a picky eater who likes the basics. And we all like movies and TV and reading novels, but Will likes sports.
Growing up, in the Fall and Winter seasons, Will would want to race home from church to watch football. He would yell at us: “What kind of American family are you??? On a Sunday, YOU WATCH FOOTBALL!!!!!”
I’ve been following football these past few weeks because of the player Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who is choosing to “take a knee” instead of stand for the singing of the national anthem before the pre-season games. Kaepernick’s birth father was black, his birth mother was white, and his parents who adopted him when he was a baby are white. He grew up in the mid-west and played college football in Nevada.
A reporter noticed he was taking a knee during the anthem and asked him why? He said:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Colin’s quiet protest has rankled a lot of people, especially some of the loudest cultural commentators of our day–politically conservative Evangelical Christian leaders–but I think the progressive Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans put it best when she said that:
“The early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire.”
This is what is at the heart of this controversy–where our allegiances lie. And this is exactly what Jesus talks about today in the Gospel story. Jesus tells us what it is going to take to become his disciple.
This is one of those stories–we’ve been reading some in Luke this past month–that doesn’t sound very Jesus-y. Because there are three things Jesus lists in this story, three things it takes to be his disciple.
The first is hate. Not very Jesus-y, right? You have to hate your father, your mother, your wife or husband, your brothers and sisters, hate life itself.
The second is to carry the cross and follow Jesus.
And the third is to give up all your possessions (and this involves something even worse than giving up stuff to me, which is planning ahead).
So today I ask you, why do you want to be Jesus’s disciple? When it requires these things?
When it requires hating all things, carrying a heavy cross, and giving up all your possessions?
And further, I ask you, what does it even mean to be Jesus’s disciple? Let alone, do we want to do it? But, what is it?
So first, I want to speak to a tendency that I have when reading portions of biblical text, which is to assume that God is speaking to me directly–that every single thing Jesus says is directed straight into my heart and that I need to take it literally.
Even though, of course we know, these are stories written down in Greek, a kind of greek that doesn’t even exist anymore. And we know that Jesus was probably speaking Aramaic. And Jesus was speaking to all different groups of people in all different contexts, not our own context. And these stories were told around dinner tables for years and years after Jesus’s death until some groups of people chose to write them down. And that’s what we’re left with as the Bible.
So the messages in the bible speak to our heart–yes, of course–and as Episcopalians we believe that these holy, mysterious, ancient words hold all things necessary for our salvation. (That’s a churchy way of saying we don’t need to go looking for anything else.) But it does not mean, whatever culture or American protestantism tells you, that these words are literal. This is a buzz word when talking about the bible, so I decided to look up the word, and the definition of literal is literally, “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” Metaphor, allegory, context–I think there is no way to understand the truth of text, of story, and therefore of the Bible, which of course is a collection of stories–without using these layers, these tools that, in fact, God gives us!! God gives us the ability to understand metaphor, the gift of allegory and poetry and beauty in how we communicate.
So context for this story is first that Jesus is speaking to a group of people who are ready to follow Jesus because Jesus has promised a vision of the world that is wonderful. Jesus is promising equality–the kind of equality you can not even picture, it is so radical: the erasure of boundaries, the end of oppression, and fullness of life to people who are destitute at the hands of the Roman Empire.
You can imagine this in a current context when you think of people who have signed on to pyramid schemes because they are so worried about money, or people who signed up for programs that seem too good to be true–heartbreaking stories we hear in the media lately about people who gave over a lot of money to crooked institutions like, for example Trump University, only to lose that money, and to receive nothing in return.
And so Jesus, today, is reminding us that to be his disciple is not a quick scheme, it is not too good to be true, and it is not easy–the cost of being his disciple is very high.
So with that context, let’s look at what those costs are:
The first is hate.
This is a perfect example of why we should not be literal about reading these texts, because the Greek word does not only mean hate–though that is its most simple definition–it also means to “set aside in favor of.” Or to “love less.” So Jesus is demanding that we love our immediate concerns–our family–less than we love him, less than we love God.
God’s love for us is beyond our own reckoning, and so can it not be that our love for God could also be very great, greater than what we can know and touch in the loving of the people around us?
The second thing is that Jesus tells us to carry a cross. I wonder what exactly that even means to Jesus, who has yet to be crucified on a cross. When I think of taking up a cross, I think of Jesus carrying that cross on which he will be crucified, but again, thinking about how we read texts, this comes before that. So what does it mean to take up a cross?
In Jesus’s time, the cross was a tool of oppression at the hands of the Roman Empire. It was means of death, it killed enemies of the state, and it would kill Jesus later in this story.
And so we are called, in this way, to lift up–and I would say lift off–the tools of oppression that surround us today, in order to be a disciple of Jesus. And we are called to carry them knowing that we may be their victims.
And the third thing Jesus tells this crowd who is seeking easy paradise is that they give up all their possessions.
So, again, this is not Jesus speaking directly to us in 2016 in Brooklyn, but rather by way of a group of people who are seeking something specific two thousand years ago.
But the message to us, rather than to throw everything away–which would be the literal understanding–is to remove ourselves, as best we can, from an economy of oppression. It actually goes hand in hand with what Jesus has said before, that we lift off the tools of the empire–and in America in 2016 I would say those are: American exceptionalism, the economy where the super-wealthy are fewer and fewer while millions live in poverty. And that includes releasing ourselves from the desire to live in that glitzy economy where we desire more and more things to comfort us in the face of the reality of suffering that we know surrounds us.
What does this look like today?
Colin Kaepernick grew up like my brother Will, loving football. He was so good at sports that colleges tried to recruit him for baseball; he was even drafted to play professional baseball, but his heart was with football–a particularly American sport. A sport with a history tied to America’s history. And like America’s history, a sport that is complicated and beautiful and dangerous and not perfect.
I think it is safe to say that Colin Kaepernick loves football. But he does not love it more than the hope he has for his country, to be a place where children of color do not live in fear of police brutality, where equality reigns, a place that looks a little bit like Jesus’s vision for the reign of God.
It is this kind of sacrifice that Jesus talks about this morning:
Loving justice more than sport,
Loving people more than ceremony,
Loving God more than our own self-interest,
And always toward a vision of God’s radical equality. AMEN.