Beyond Profession and Association
A sermon preached by the Rev. Morgan Allen, Rector of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, June 30, 2019
Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.
This Sunday’s Gospel begins at the very moment Jesus “set[s] his face to go to Jerusalem,”[i] that hinge in Luke’s narrative turning its principal and its readers from the ascendency of prophecies fulfilled … temptations overcome … and disciples called … to the approaching betrayal, arrest, and the unflinching brutality of the cross. As Jesus’ disciples struggle to keep hold of Jesus as he makes this sharp turn, so, too, does Jesus seem to struggle with that turn’s necessity. After rebuking his friends for suggesting heavenly fire consume a Samaritan village,[ii] Jesus laments, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[iii]
Jesus’ lament admits a great weariness, not only a physical fatigue, but the emotional exhaustion of his ministry: while he already recognizes the inevitability of suffering and loss, those he most loves do not, and the distance between their still-ascendant hopes – hopes he shares, of course, but hopes he knows cannot be fulfilled without cost – the distance between their hopes and his fate arouses a loneliness impossible to tolerate.
Perhaps in an effort to bridge that isolation, even from his weariness Jesus calls to one in the crowd, inviting, “Follow me.”[iv] The prospective disciple replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”[v] Instead of lending this one mercy or grace in their grief – instead of accepting their clearly intended goodwill and taking what he can get – Jesus responds curtly: “Let the dead bury their dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”[vi]
Another in the crowd promises, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”[vii] And – again – Jesus responds crossly, reiterating the demands of discipleship: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[viii]
The anomaly of Jesus’ severity tempts us to gloss over this lesson and to forgive these difficult words, excusing Jesus from responsibility for issuing the challenge, and effectively sparing ourselves from receiving with it. Despite this inclination, we do well to allow the anomaly to provoke the contrary effect, namely that we would, instead, receive the incongruity as a call to deepen our consideration. Exploring the challenge, then, note that today’s lesson follows Peter’s declaration: Jesus asking, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter faithfully declaring, “The Messiah of God.”[ix] Thereafter, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection – “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – and, upon announcing his fate, he personalizes the challenge for his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[x]
Jesus’ responses to Peter and the two from the crowd in today’s lesson make clear that faith demands more than profession and association alone … faith demands more than profession and association alone. All three of these characters name Jesus as Lord and declare their desire to move toward him – commitments that have drawn affirmation in other settings – but rather than affirming their intentions, Jesus pressures the disciples to accept the daily work of carrying their crosses. Jesus both wants them to know that discipleship will not be easy, and he wants them to choose it anyway.
As foreshadowed in my letter to the parish this week, we encounter this difficult Gospel as we grapple with renewed attention to the suffering of detainees at our southern border, as well as the perilous journeys migrants undertake as they flee violence and oppression in their countries of origin. Importantly, these issues must reveal for us the underlying racism giving rise to such horrors – and that racism, these sufferings, and those journeys became powerfully personalized in the Julia Le Duc photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter, Valeria, laying face down and dead in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande … tall weeds of the Matamaros bank partially obscuring their bodies, and a blue beer can floating just to the left of the child.
We want to read the Ramírez’ story of seeking freedom and opportunity – only to find rejection and death – we want to receive this story as an anomaly to justify our looking away from it. Therefore, despite the photograph’s force and clarity, within twenty-four hours of its publishing the media’s coverage shifted to the Democratic debates. People of God, recognize that specific diversion – politics – exposes a primary strategy for moving our national attention away from the suffering of brown and black people. Politics, that great indulgence allowing us to feign a hand on the plow of meaningful change, while we continue preoccupied with what is behind us.
See, so often political engagement allows us to claim righteousness by professing a position – You are the Messiah of God … and associating with a candidate or party – Lord, I will follow you … all as a substitute for dealing with the inevitable suffering and loss of personal transformation – Let me first say farewell to my family at home.
Retweeting our preferred politicians’ messages of outrage – even carrying signs in Copley Square – can prevent us from confronting how we participate and benefit from the racist culture and policies leading to horrific events like those in Matamoras. Even when such activism is well-intended and layered with love – Let me first bury my father, we plead – professions and associations alone contribute to racism, rather than challenge it, for such shows of support ultimately serve only to reassure the powerful about their place in the system, rather than inaugurate real and consequential change … and that’s playing the game, rather than changing the game. Jesus understands this power of the status quo, and, to reorient us from our distractions, he purposefully unleashes language that offends us.
Now, brothers and sisters, do not hear my confession of complicity as an invitation to sit in sackcloth and ashes. No! Acknowledging my complicity calls us to get up off our ashes, and to begin the daily labor of carrying our cross – not as a symbol of our suffering, but as the lever for the world’s transformation. Aiming for Easter, we receive the strength to test every one of our assumptions, and to interrogate every one of our inclinations:
Is it kind?
Is it just?
Is it right?
… over and over and over again, until the fulfillment of time, until all people have been reconciled to God and to one another – that’s Jesus’ horizon, and if we want to reach it, then our work to end racism in this country requires more than the politics of profession and association alone. As Christians and as members of Trinity Church, we must recognize that the tendernesses and horrors we have now seen in the Rio Grande point directly to those in our Boston streets, and we must hold fast our loves and kindnesses and mercies most within our control. Appreciating that discipleship will be hard, still we must choose it, sustaining our attention and risking our position together – not alone, but together first confronting the racism in own hearts and lives with the same clarity we decry it at our border. That is Kingdom labor. Let us get to it.