Guest Post: Take Off Your Shoes, Take Up The Cross

When she posts to a blog, Kara Slade most often posts to Profligate Grace, so I am glad to have the opportunity to post this sermon of hers on my own blog tonight!
SPOILER ALERT: This is the sermon that Kara will be preaching at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Oxford, NC tomorrow morning (31 August 2014) – so don’t read it before then if you have the chance to go hear her deliver it live! :-)

NB – Kara nicely footnoted all her references, but they didn’t transfer over very easily when I pasted her text in here, so I’ve done my usual version of footnoting on this blog, using links to refer you to the works she is citing.

Take Off Your Shoes, Take Up the Cross

A sermon given by the Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, NC, on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17), August 31, 2014.

Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28

The God of Abraham praise, at Whose supreme command
From earth I rise—and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and power;
And Him my only Portion make, my Shield and Tower.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“We all have our crosses to bear.” I remember hearing that little saying all the time growing up, usually from my mom. Now, since my mom is from North Carolina, I suspect there are other folks here today who might have heard it too. Usually the context was some kind of misfortune or unfairness – it might have been about something serious like a chronic illness, or a difficult marriage, or trouble on the job. Or, it might have been something much more existentially relevant to ten year old me, like the homework I didn’t want to do or the fact that I found most things at school fatally boring. Either way, the implied message was the same: suffering is part of life, and we’re supposed to bear that suffering stoically and without complaining. Grit your teeth and carry your cross, and eventually God will reward you for it. After all, that’s what Jesus is telling his followers to do in the passage I just read. Isn’t it?

Well, please don’t tell my mom, but this morning I’d like to disagree with that interpretation of today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. But to do so I need to begin with our Old Testament lesson. I’d like to suggest that we can’t begin to think about what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus until we understand what it means to take off our shoes and stand with Moses.

In the 3rd chapter of Exodus, Moses is minding his own business when he gets the surprise of his life. There on the mountain he sees the bush, he sees the fire that burns but doesn’t consume, and he hears a voice: ”Moses! Moses! Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This passage sounds almost intolerably weird to our ears, but it’s supposed to. It isn’t a unique feature of modernity that we expect fire to act in a certain way, that we expect bushes not to talk to us. The strangeness of this technicolor divine interruption is like a flashing orange road sign: “Danger! God at Work!” But in the middle of all that action, the seemingly mundane mention of footwear isn’t a throwaway line; it’s actually a pivotal detail. Thea Portier-Young, who teaches Old Testament at Duke, had this to say about what Moses’ sandals represent in the story:

Sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. . . Later in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet . . . preparations [that] signified readiness for the journey ahead. The books of Deuteronomy and Ruth explain rites in which removing one’s sandals – or having them removed by another – nullified previously binding legal and social ties, creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility. When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands.

And where he stands is before the One who refuses to reveal His name, the One who refuses the logic of names altogether and says, “I AM who I am.” Now, this verse is much beloved by the most boring people in philosophy, the ones who produce 500-page treatises on the nature of Absolute Being. But please note, this God is no abstract entity, floating above us all in a nebulous blob of transcendence. No, this is the God who acts in history, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called Moses – and the God who would act uniquely and decisively in Jesus Christ. As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson put it, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.” And from today’s readings we could add, God is whoever sent Peter to Rome, having first sent Moses to Pharaoh. Even though they weren’t exactly prime leadership material: Moses, the spokesman who hated public speaking, and Peter, that decidedly unsteady rock of the Church.

And that brings us to the Gospel, where Peter is convinced he knows how God’s plan is supposed to work better than Jesus does. Like many Jews of his day, Peter expected a messiah who would grab the wheel of history and turn it by force – not one who would be crushed under the machinery of Rome. And so when Jesus starts talking about suffering, and being killed, and being raised on the third day, Peter says, no, thank you, this isn’t the trip I signed up for. Peter doesn’t want to hear what Jesus says next, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” And truth be told, I don’t want to hear it either. I’m far too attached to the idea of my own self-reliance, my own hard work, and my own success. Left to my own devices, I’m all too ready to sign up for a little world-gaining and life-saving, to take the wheel of my own history and turn it by force. But to me, like Peter, Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” To me, like Moses, God says, “Take off your shoes. This is holy ground.”

One of the most famous lines in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Of course, in his own life that call to die was all too literal, but I think he also has something to say to the rest of us about what it means to be called, and what it means to follow. He reminds us, quite firmly, that the cross is never just a metaphor for “one’s daily misfortune, as the predicament and anxiety of our natural life.” In fact, he calls that error one sign of a corrupted Church. So, let me be clear: Regardless of whether that predicament is as trivial as missing the bus, or as shattering as an abusive relationship, that is not the cross. No, in Bonhoeffer’s words, the cross is “the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ [who] in his word has to be our death and our life.” This is a very tedious, very German way of saying the cross isn’t about putting up with whatever life hands you. It’s about putting away whatever gets between you and Jesus.

If you’re wondering what this looks like in reality, here’s the best example I know of. Several years ago, I came across the testimony of a young man who had converted, been baptized, and was just beginning his Christian life in prison. He thought, and he prayed, and finally he realized the first thing he needed to do was give up his shank – the improvised knife that marked him as a tough guy who was always ready to defend himself. He did it as a sign that he trusted in God rather than in his own strength, as a witness that the logic of fear and violence and retribution had no power over him. It was the kind of dying to self that truly led to new freedom and abundant life. And that’s what makes the cross different – it’s the one burden that actually un-burdens us.

One last word from Bonhoeffer: “Jesus calls all who are laden with . . . sufferings and burdens to throw off their yokes and to take his yoke upon themselves. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. His yoke and his burden is the cross. Here we are no longer laden with self-made laws and burdens, but with the yoke of him who knows us and who himself goes with us. It is he himself the disciples find when they take up their cross.”

Maybe taking up the cross really isn’t the hard part, after all.

Maybe the hard part, the part that feels like Good Friday, is putting away everything else to begin with.

So take off your shoes. This is holy ground. AMEN.

A dishonor and a privilege

I was in the waiting room of an urgent care this morning when I saw him. He was adorable. Vacillating between heartmeltingly thoughtful and thoughtlessly distracted and studiously disobedient, like any four year old. He was running around carrying a cup of water, and his mom seemed torn between letting him have his independence and keeping him from spilling it on the floor, like any mom of a preschooler.

My heart ached as I watched him, because I knew that on some day in the next six to twelve years, he would cross a line created by my people, by white U.S. people – the line between adorable and menacing. He would be the same little boy, but other people – white people – would stop seeing a little boy and see a threat – they would fear him with the visceral fear of a people whose wealth was stolen generations ago from the people of that little boy – a violent theft of labor, life, and dignity. They would fear him because, deep down, they would know that if they were dealt the hand he was dealt, they would feel entirely justified in violently breaking out against their oppressors. And so they would come to expect that outbreak, to project it onto him, so that one day, when he reaches into his pocket for a stick of gum (just like any teenager), some fearful white person might just shoot him. Just in case.

I do not have to worry about the day when my white daughter will be shot by a police officer. And I confess that that is a relief to me. I have never been scared of more than a bump in my insurance rates when a police officer has pulled me over. Or, when I was younger, that the officer might call my Dad, and my Dad would be disappointed in me. I am white, and my husband is white, and my child is white. My sister and brother are white, and their spouses and children are white. I haven’t had to think about police violence, or vigilante violence, or Klan violence.

That’s a big part of what “privilege” means – it means not having to think about difficult things because of who you are. I have to think about being a woman – being a woman is a dangerous thing in this world – but I can choose whether to think about being white.

White friends, if you haven’t thought about it, think about it now. Think about what it means to be white. If you are parents of white children, think about that. Think about all of the things that you don’t have to think about. Like not having to worry about whether your child will grow up to be shot by a police officer, and have the whole police department mobilize to cover it up. Like not having to worry about whether some vigilante will confront and then shoot your unarmed kid, and then be acquitted because it was “self-defense.” Like not having to worry about how your child will carry on after you are killed by white folks who tied you to the back of a truck and dragged you down a road for sport. Like not having to worry about whether you will be choked by a police officer in front of your young child for using your grill on the sidewalk in front of your house. Or being killed because your wife, the mother of your son, does not have the same skin color as you do.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. Jesus told him a story that flipped the question – we are to BE neighbors – to choose to care for anyone who is being knocked down and beat up and having everything taken from them. To anyone who is being shot in the street.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus discouraged the lawyer from limiting the scope of what “neighbor” might mean. For all of us white folks, who are grateful for the privilege of not having to fear violence for ourselves and our families based on what we look like, loving our neighbor as ourselves means wanting that sense of security for everyone.

Mothers know that their children are adorable no matter how old they are. They are precious. I am praying for all of the mothers tonight, especially for the mothers of black children, who knew long before Mike Brown was shot how dangerous their children’s lives are – how fragile their existence is in this country that fears them furiously and violently. Lord, may it not ever be so. May these mothers one night sleep a peaceful night’s sleep, because their child is finally free to walk in the world as safely as my own white child. Amen.

Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, Brian and I and a friend went to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friend in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!