St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Oregon City, Oregon, 04 September, 2016
Periodically, I am reminded that God has a sense of humor. For example, this weekend my parents are visiting, and I get to preach on a gospel passage that starts with Jesus’ warning, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). It is not exactly the most welcoming, family-friendly message.
Jesus isn’t trying to be family-friendly, or particularly friendly at all. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem where we know he will be confronted by both state and religious authorities. At this moment, it almost seems as if Jesus is impatient with the growing number of people trailing him into the city, and his words are calculated to check their perhaps naive enthusiasm. He shocks them into listening by challenging the very social safety net that ensured their survival, participation in their family. Unlike today, where many of us have moved away from our families, or may have no significant contact with them, to not be in a family in Palestine was to have no food, shelter, income or support. Jesus wants people to stop, sit, and think about what it means to follow him, and so he says something shocking, something uncomfortable.
Having grabbed their attention, he puts offers two straightforward comparisons. The first is excruciatingly familiar to me. Elizabeth and I have been spent the last year discussing the addition of a bathroom and office to our home, and we have sat down many times to estimate the cost and see if we can afford to start the project. Far more significant that our house project is the deliberation a leader should take before launching into war, counting the lives that might be lost, and suing for peace before it is far too late.
Perhaps the fact that both the builder and king sit down to deliberate struck me because my news feed has been filled with the controversy sparked Colin Kaepernik, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who remained seated during the singing of the national anthem, because, as he later explained, he could not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” He is aware of the cost of his protest, the potential loss of both the endorsements that make him rich and playing the game that is his career. But more important to him is that he speaks out on behalf of “people that are oppressed.” To do otherwise would be, he believes, selfish.
His deliberate choice to remain seated earned him immediate and scathing condemnations for his apparent lack of patriotism. Yet it also renewed a national conversation about race and violence, and it managed to do so without the death of yet another citizen or police officer. I learned something new as a result of this conversation, something I find profoundly disturbing: our national anthem contains a verse which celebrates the death of slaves who dared to resist their masters.
Francis Scott Key, a slave owner, served as a lieutenant in the war of 1812. His troops were routed by a group called the “Colonial Marines,” a battalion of runaway black slaves who joined the British army in return for their freedom. A few weeks later after his defeat, Key witnessed the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, over Fort McHenry, the battle which inspired the song and its first verse that I sing at the beginning of every Portland Thorns game. Key also wrote a third verse, one which I have never sung:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The band to which Key is referring are the very Colonial Marines he encountered only weeks earlier, the hirelings and slaves whose bloody deaths washed away the pollution of their betrayal. Yet where is the betrayal in resisting those who have enslaved you and your families?
The legacy of slavery, the betrayal visited on black and brown bodies throughout the Western hemisphere, is given biblical support by Paul’s rather ambiguous letter to Philemon. Paul does not clearly condemn slavery in this letter. Rather he asks that Philemon welcome Onesimus back into his home, “no longer as a slave but … a beloved brother…” (Phil 1:16). The traditional interpretation is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who has converted to Christianity, and is now returning, repentant, to his rightful master. What Paul is appears to be asking then, is that Philemon welcome Onesimus back rather than punish him for running away. This interpretation not only fails to condemn slavery, it actually endorses it as an accepted part of the status quo. I think it is worth pausing and remembering for a moment that this passage was read by Christians in the United States, by Episcopalians, a mere 150 years ago, as a biblical endorsement of slavery. I am sure that Francis Scott Key, a well-educated lawyer and active Episcopalian reader and deputy to six General conventions, read this letter as support for his ownership of black human beings.
A less pro-slavery interpretation is that Onesimus did not run away, but was sent by Philemon to care for Paul in his old age. As Paul came to know and love Onesimus as a Christian, he sends him to his master as legality demands, but insists that Philemon rethink his relationship with Onesimus, not as slave, but as a brother.
Which brings us back to the Lukan Jesus who insists, over and over again, that we cannot follow him without giving up all of our possessions. Onesimus is the possession of Philemon, and Paul insists that being a Christian reshapes their relationship into one in which possession has no part. We often see our families as things we possess, or we may feel like they possess us, or frankly, both. But Jesus redefines our relationships such that possessing someone else, treating them as an object of our need or power or gratification, is not what it is to be a disciple. Instead, following Jesus, loving Jesus, is to care for the poor, free the imprisoned, heal the sick, resist (and perhaps end) oppression and restore social and economic balance. This is how Jesus opens his ministry in Luke, and it is what he does as he travels the countryside, eating with people he shouldn’t, challenging religious authorities to welcome the unwelcome, healing the sick, generally challenging all the normal ways of relating with which people were quite comfortable.
Maybe this is why Kaepernick’s actions and people’s reaction stood out to me so much this week: protesting the death and violence with which people of color live in the United States earns condemnation because it makes us uncomfortable. I think many of us in the United States are much more ready to hear that we are supposed to hate our family (some of whom we are probably perfectly happy to hate because they are so very difficult) than that we should hate our country. This is certainly not how the early church saw things. Rachel Held Evans rightly tweeted in the midst of all of this that “the early church would be utterly baffled by the idea that future Christians would shame someone for not swearing allegiance to the empire.” It is bad enough to be reminded that we sing allegiance to a nation built on the death of indigenous peoples, the slavery of black and brown bodies. It is far worse to be reminded of this by a black man. Given the vicious response to his actions, it seems that no form of protest by blacks is welcome, even a peaceful and articulate protest. How dare a man whose job is to entertain us make us uncomfortable?
We don’t like to be uncomfortable, and when someone makes us uncomfortable, we tend to get mean, nasty, and violent.
And that, that nastiness, meanness, and violence, that is the cross Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ death on the cross reveals the disturbing truth that we prefer violence and death to truth, justice, mercy and love. Questioning the status quo, challenging our loves, our allegiances, our possessions, our passions, our privileges, and can brings out the worst in us. A Catholic bishop and liberation theologian once said that “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Dom Hélder Câmara was not a communist, any more than was Archibishop Oscar Romero who was shot while serving the Eucharist because he spoke in solidarity the poor, or Dorothy Day whom the Catholic Church can’t quite canonize because she simply refused to prioritize anything above care for the out-of-work poor in depressed New York City. But when we don’t like what someone says, when they make us uncomfortable, it is easier to call them names or tell them they should leave the country, than take to heart that perhaps we don’t really want the tired, the poor, the huddled masses or the wretched refuse of the world.
Taking up the cross shouldn’t be done lightly because it has the potential to cost us things we hold near and dear. Both good things, because even our friends and family might come to resent us for introducing discomfort into their lives, but also the terrible things that we love, perhaps without realizing how terrible they are for those around us. In the cross we see what God is like, for us, radically, always, for us. And we see what we are like, which is not so radically for us.
And so Jesus tells us to stop, sit down, and think about it, to count the cost of potentially losing, or having to give up, all those things and people we possess.
The irony is, the cross isn’t actually choosing death, or suffering. It is choosing life, choosing to work with God in incarnating a a world of justice, mercy and peace. Because the requirements for justice, mercy and peace make people uncomfortable and angry such a life may result in suffering and loss, but the goal of being with God is always life. How excellent would it be if Kaepernick’s protest serves to do more than simply continue the conversation about race in this country without the requisite dead black body. How excellent would it be if, by his peaceful, deliberate insistence that we must talk truthfully and realistically about this home, this place, this nation that many of us love, lives were saved? That is a cross that I hope all of us are deliberately courageous enough to bear.