Proper 7(A)

If you’ve ever read a popular magazine or watched any daytime television show

like Dr. Phil or The Doctors, you will know that they are built on the premise that

we want to be successful. We want to be successful with our diets, we want to

looks healthy and fit, we want to be successful in our marriages and in our jobs.

And these shows and articles are all about how to be successful. And whether

they are selling snake oil or giving good advice, they count on our hunger for

success to sell their products and themselves. And they usually package it as “Ten

Easy steps to a Tighter Tummy” or “Three Rules that Will Fix Your Marriage.”

 

Well, it has always been that way, and in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is telling

the disciples how to be successful as his followers. But listen to what Jesus counts

as success:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they

malign those of his household!

 

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who

can destroy both soul and body in hell.

 

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to

bring peace, but a sword.

 

And the final clincher:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever

loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not

take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will

lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Following Jesus is going to be more than wearing a I Jesus t-shirt. There is no

way that being Jesus’ disciple is going to fit neatly into an otherwise stable life.

Jesus is saying that if they want to measure their success, the yardstick against

which they should measure it is the Cross. If they are true to him, then they will

suffer as he did. People will hate them and persecute them and the only promise

is that God will be with them, and the promise that they will find real life by giving

up the false life of accommodation with the world.

 

It is hard for us, who have never known real persecution, to really understand

what making the choice to follow Jesus meant for the disciples. And it is equally

hard to understand what life is like for people in other cultures, who do still make

the choice to follow Jesus, even when they risk their freedom and their lives to do

so. We may risk being ignored or laughed at if we take our faith seriously. But we

probably won’t get fired or go to jail or be killed for it.

 

In 21st century America, those of us who are Christian, white, and educated,

are the dominant group. We have the privilege of having the most wealth and

education, the best housing and the hundred other signs of privilege that we

are accorded in this society. So rather than focus on how we are persecuted for

our faith, I want to risk thinking with you about how we persecute others. There

is a little book by Allan G. Johnson, called Privilege, Power and Difference. It is

the best description of the barriers that divide people from one another that I

have read. He doesn’t lay blame, but points out how having privilege and power

make us unaware of what others without power struggle with. Being of another

race, another religion, another ethnicity, being female or physically impaired or

homosexual, all of those things lower our privilege and our access to power. And,

of course, it is in the interests of those of us in power to stay unaware that others

lack what we have. So we easily judge the poor person who is black or Latino, who

never got a good education and whose chance at getting a job is small, and who

has to struggle every day to survive in ways that we cannot imagine. And while

we have gotten better as a society about our prejudice against Jews, we are still

often afraid of people who are Muslim or Hindu or other Eastern religions. And

consciously or not, we find ways to keep them out of power.

 

And this starts early. We hear our children make fun of another child and we let

it go, or perhaps we silently cheer them on. Our children learn very early on that

some people are, to use the quote from “Animal Farm,” ‘more equal than others.’

And because children learn so quickly and thoroughly, they soon figure out which

people or groups they can ignore or tease or bully. And so the pattern continues.

 

So I want to suggest that we hear this Gospel lesson in a different way. To follow

Jesus in 21sr century America means first, becoming aware of how we persecute

others, even unintentionally. It means hearing their stories, and beginning to

understand the ways in which they have been denied the privileges we take for

granted. And second, following Jesus for us means finding ways to change the

“rules” we take so much for granted about who gets power and who doesn’t.

There was a wonderful story about this in the news lately. A white woman was in

the grocery store with her friend, who was African American. The white woman

went through the line first and paid with a check. The cashier looked briefly at

her driver’s license and then signed off on the check. Her friend followed, and

also paid with a check. But this time, the cashier didn’t accept her driver’s license.

She wanted another form of identification. With obvious suspicion, she then

went to the book with the list of customers who have bounced checks. When the

white woman saw this, she went to the service counter and asked for a manager

to come to the checkout. When the manager got there, he said, “Is there a

problem?” The white woman said, “Yes, there is. I went through the line and paid

with a check and had no trouble. But my friend, who is black, has been treated

with disrespect and suspicion. I want to know why.” The manager, of course, fell

all over himself apologizing and immediately okayed the black woman’s check.

It was the willingness of a person in power to step in and defend the rights of

someone with less power that made the difference.

 

We take a risk when we champion those who lack privilege and power. We may

be scorned or ridiculed. We may risk losing friendships. People may be angry that

we are questioning the unwritten rules that we live by. But if we are going to be

true followers of Jesus, we have no other choice. Jesus spent his life reaching out

to those that society scorned. He called the rules of power and privilege of his

society into question. For those of us in power today, that is what we are called to

as well. We don’t have to do any great heroic act. We might start by simply sitting

down with someone, for example, who is black, uneducated and poor and just

asking them to tell us what their struggles are. If we can truly listen – not telling

them what they should do or why they’re wrong – we will learn things we never

knew or imagined. We must hear the voices of those who experience the world

very differently than we do, we must trust their experience and we must find

ways – even small ways – to make our society one where all people have access

to the privilege and power that we enjoy.

 

The promise that we are given is that it is in doing that that we will find true and

abundant life. If we cling to the privilege of this world, we risk losing the real

power, which is the power of God’s love. If we risk giving away the power of this

world, we will gain more than we could ever have imagined or hoped for.

 

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever

loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not

take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will

lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Amen.

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