I surely cannot count the number of times I have preached on the words of Jesus words before us now — both as we hear them in Matthew and also in Mark’s Gospel. Given that this is so, why is it that now it is as though I am hearing them for the very first time?
This is how I have come to this realization:
I was sent on a journey of introspection this morning as I sat with colleagues and friends in our DeKalb Area Micah Group. A Micah Group is a ministry of Fuller Seminary in California which can be found in cities all across the country. Through this, preachers of differing denominations, genders, and races are invited to come together in an intentional way for regular conversation and learning about race and justice and how these matters inform (or do not inform) our ministries. (If you want more information about these groups, you can click here.)
For this is how it was. I grew up in a home which was intentionally ‘non-prejudiced.’ Racial slurs were not a part of our vocabulary. Through church involvement we had some exposure to people of different races and the tensions in the world then, but even those I can count on the fingers of one hand. My mother speaks of the Sunday after Martin Lutheran King, Jr. was killed and of how our pastor cried. She, herself, called up the local radio station to speak against the racist views which were regularly espoused there. At the same time, I grew up in a congregation which was made up of people mostly of Northern European descent. And while it was true that my classmates in grade school were also mostly white, there was a healthy mix of Latino children sitting alongside me. Although this is so. I do not remember seeing much of them once I reached high school. Surely it is a sign of my privilege that I never thought to wonder why. I went to college in Iowa — a private Lutheran school — where the smattering of black students from Chicago mostly kept to themselves. And I went to seminary in Minnesota in the mid-1980’s where I cannot remember a single person of color from this country taking classes with us. I took this for granted. And while I lived for a time then in North Minneapolis which was racially diverse, I only slept there. I had little cause or reason to interact with those whose skin color and whose life experiences differed so from my own.
And this was also so. So far as I can remember, I don’t believe we ever talked about race in a single one of my classes in seminary. Perhaps it was all I was able to take in at the time, but if my memory serves me right, a whole lot of energy went into correct Biblical interpretation and theological purity or ‘rightness.’ I learned how to translate ‘take up your cross and follow me’ from the original Greek and since then I have regularly and often tried to translate it into the lives of my congregants in ways that are meaningful and true. And yet, it seems like today, in light of this morning’s conversation which reflected powerfully on those tensions which are making themselves more and more known on the national scene, yes, but also in our own community — it seems like today I am hearing this for the very first time.
And this is what I am hearing. Theological purity is just fine and correct interpretations of the Word are important — but these are always meant to be in service of something far greater. What I mean to say is that I can ‘think correctly’ all day long, but if I don’t do something with it, then what is the point? For Jesus is all about movement here. We are meant to follow him. And, yes, that means far more than my being able to say at the end of any given Sunday that ‘well, I preached about it’ and then ‘putting it away’ as though that was somehow enough.
And the fact is that now I am serving in a community which is racially diverse and where the tensions borne of injustice are boiling just beneath the surface. And while in my congregation, I am serving among people of enormous good will, too much of the time it is far too easy for us to turn our backs and look away because for the most part, we have no idea of the hardships or joys in the lives of our neighbors who do not look like us. And maybe there was a day when it would have been easier to simply not disrupt our comfortable places and understandings of the world. Only not anymore. Because the wonder of the Word is that it comes to us new every time we hear it. And I am hearing it in new ways.
So, without a doubt, my work is cut out for me. Because you see, I cannot pretend anymore that ‘taking up my cross’ is only something I am to embrace with my mind, or even just only in the relatively safe confines of my own congregation, but with my very living and dying. And the certain truth as we hear it today is that to do otherwise is to already choose death.
To do otherwise is to already choose death. Death of true community. Death of truth itself. Death of meaning. Death of joy in all of its possible fullness. And on and on.
Forgive me for taking you on my very own personal journey to this understanding today. And yet, for white people of privilege, which I expect many of you are, it is a journey we are all called to take in one way or another. If you are as blessed as I am, perhaps you have also found yourself where I am today, if not even further along. Even so, I do not yet fully know what this taking up this particular cross is going to mean. For now I am simply trying to put myself in the presence of people whose lives look very different from my own. I am trying to listen and learn from them, to stand alongside and support, to show up and to be willing to be challenged to grow in new ways. And yes, part of me ‘dies’ in even only doing this, but I expect there is a whole lot more to come.
And so I wonder with you now…
- For many who preach, this is a very familiar passage. Are you able to hear it now in new ways? Why or why not?
- How do you hear Jesus’ invitation to ‘take up your cross and follow him’ in light of national and perhaps local tensions around race? What does it mean to you to choose ‘life and not death’ in these matters today?
- If not related to the more public — and for many very personal — matters of ‘race,’ then how or where do Jesus’ words speak to you today? How does his invitation shape your living and your dying?