Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 8, 2019
“The Problem of Being ‘Not-Racist’
Luke 14: 25-33 – The Message
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
In our gospel reading for today, large crowds followed along as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem where he would ultimately have to follow his own advice. Don’t start something you can’t finish. He could have added a few more inspirational quotes like “winners never quit, and quitters never win” or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The crowds of people who followed Jesus did so for lots of reasons. Some enjoyed the show. He was entertaining. Imagine being there when two demon-possessed men approached Jesus. Imagine watching as Jesus ordered the demons to leave the men and enter a herd a pigs and then watch as those pigs race off a cliff and drown in the sea. Yes, it sounds absurd. And yes, someone should have called PETA to report animal abuse. But my faith does not hang on whether Jesus actually did literally cast out demons. Just set that aside and imagine being in the crowd and watching it happen. Wouldn’t you want to see more? To watch as Jesus healed people. To watch as Jesus called out the religious authorities as hypocrites and broods of vipers.
Some people followed Jesus because they believed sincerely that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Others opposed him and followed along trying to trap him in one heresy after another. I would be willing to bet, though, that the majority just followed him for the free entertainment. When street musicians or street magicians wow us with their talents, how many people actually put money the violin case or in their hat? There is no obligation to give them anything, and so when we tire of their talents, we can simply walk away. That is, if we even bother to notice them.
I love the story about Joshua Bell, the amazing, world-renowned, violinist. He played outside a Washington, DC, subway station one cold day as hundreds of commuters, thousands of people rushed by. Seven people stood to watch for between a few seconds and a few minutes. Several children tried to stop and listen, but they were pulled away by parents with a schedule to keep. After playing for 45 minutes, the case that held his $3.5 million dollar violin contained $32 in coins and small bills. At the time, to watch him play at a symphony hall cost $100 per ticket.
Jesus turned to the large crowd that was following him and said, “If you can’t carry your own cross, you can’t be my disciple.” Later he said, “If you can’t give up your possessions, you can’t follow me.” Those are the kinds of things we expect to hear from Jesus. Words that flow in one ear and out the other. Nice. Comforting. However, there is one more thing Jesus said in this passage, that does catch our attention.
We heard Claire read “Jesus told them, ‘Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple.” That’s not quite what he said, however. I didn’t want to hear the real words spoken from the mouth of a pre-teen because what Jesus really said was, “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.”
Hate is not a word we expect to hear from Jesus. Maybe hate evil, but certainly not hate family. Especially since one of the Ten Commandments is to honor one’s father and mother.
I started a new lunch and lectionary group on Thursday. Five of us ate noodles and discussed this passage. We spent a great deal of our time on our discomfort with the word hate. We didn’t mind “refuse to let go of.” Or, as a children’s bible translates this phrase, “you can’t love others more than you love me.” That sounds better. More Jesus-y. But pretty much every other translation from the original language uses the word hate. So, if the use of that word is consistent, what did the word hate mean in his context?
One scholar suggested that hate in this context meant “were you willing to bring shame upon your family?” It’s true that being a follower of Jesus at the time wasn’t exactly something that would make your family proud. It could bring ridicule from your neighbors. And that would, in turn, bring shame upon the family. Therefore, Jesus is asking, are you still willing to follow me even with those consequences? Almost every scholar proposes that the word hate here is simply hyperbole; an exaggeration to get our attention and the attention of the large crowd of mostly spectators following Jesus.
But whether it’s meant as an exaggeration or whether hate here is more about honor and shame, those interpretations may all be true. Logical explanations. And yet, we can’t help but read the word hate and have an emotional response. Hate is meant to evoke a response. Hate speech. Hate crimes. Tacit approval with a wink and a nod. It causes us to feel.
One reason so many of us are exhausted right now is the energy it takes to hear about hatred almost every day. Every act of cruelty in the news drains us of even more energy. Sadly, one way to protect ourselves is to either ignore such stories or even deny that hatred is the intent. How often do we hear the excuse, “that’s not what they really mean”? That’s a luxury, however, that the targets of hate don’t have. The targets of hate cannot ignore hate or simply wish that it didn’t exist.
The last line of today’s passage Claire read said, “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.” I like the line about plans or people. That is thought-provoking. But, the consistent word used across translations, just like hate, is “possessions.” To the large crowds following Jesus, he turned to say, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We can take that to mean our stuff. Our things. Our closets and basements and attics and storage units filled with possessions. But I wondered what would happen if we tied those two words together. The word hate and the word possessions.
What do those who proudly endorse hate possess? Fear of losing power and privilege. Who openly promotes hate? People who feel they are losing something. Surely one easy answer is white supremacists.
Theo Wilson is a black man here in Denver who went undercover online with white supremacists – the alt-right – for 8 months. As a personal experiment, he created an online identity as John Carter and joined in to question President Obama’s birthplace and bemoan why black people can be proud but white people can’t. He later told CNN that what surprised him most was how hatred backfires on the hater. He noted that none of them was happy. Theo even felt some sympathy toward them. That their emotional entanglement in white identity caused them great suffering that comes out as rage, anger, and hatred. Most alarming, and ironic, he said, was that none of these guys were living their best lives. They spent most of their time focused on blame.
I met Theo a few weeks ago at the hostility-filled meeting of the Stapleton Master Community Association that ratified the vote to keep the name. We had coffee on Tuesday and talked about how people should just start using another name. He suggested Westbrook, the black man who infiltrated Stapleton’s Klan.
I found myself at Torpedo Café three times this week unintentionally providing pastoral care to people involved in the effort to ReName Stapleton for All. All were impacted in some way for their activism; most particularly the impact of time away from family. Following their efforts and the recent vote, I suggested to each one they could choose to step away. It would be OK to at least take a break. That is not an option any would choose, so we talked about how to take care of one another and how the church could help connect a broader community of activists in Park Hill and Stapleton.
One woman spoke about people who avoided taking a position on the name to keep themselves above the fray. The myth of neutrality, she called it. It reminded me of Desmond Tutu who said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As the Archbishop said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Dr. King had much to say about speaking up when it matters, including “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Or, a phrase that sounds very much like Jesus in our passage today. Dr. King said, “If a person has not discovered something they will die for, they aren’t fit to live.” Sounds almost as strident and uncomfortable as Jesus’ use of the word hate. Is it just hyperbole? Or is he asking something more of us than we have considered before? To stop being mere spectators.
Ibram X. Kendi is a professor and director of a research and policy center at American University. He has a new book called How to Be an Antiracist. He has a problem with people who declare they are “not racist.” How many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist?” and then list black friends and causes they gave money to in the 1960s. Or claim, “I’m the least racist person in the world.” He said even alt-right leader Richard Spencer and KKK wizard David Duke insist they are not racist. I’m not sure why they would care.
So what’s the problem with being a ‘not racist’? Kendi said, it’s the neutrality. “I’m not a racist” is a term of denial. It doesn’t have any other meaning. A not-racist allows racial inequities to persevere. Doesn’t challenge them. Doesn’t try to change them.
An anti-racist does. The term has a very clear meaning. An antiracist works, for example, to eliminate mass incarceration, reform the criminal justice system, bring equity to public education and health care. And provide humane treatment of families at the border escaping violence and terror. Any way that black and brown people are disproportionately negatively affected. An antiracist believes in racial equality and works toward racial equity.
I thought this was a really powerful way to consider our own lives and our church’s approach to racial justice. It’s not good enough to be “not racist.” Not-racists are spectators who don’t want to miss the entertainment. We must also be anti-racist. Not anti-people but anti-racist power. Cruel and hateful policies. Therefore, what are some of the possessions we hate enough to get rid of them to move from spectator to follower of Jesus? Privilege and neutrality.
Like the privilege to think it is a neutral statement to say “it’s just history”. Which also says, “The Klan wasn’t really that bad.” Which made me think that the name Stapleton will not be removed until those who claim to be “not racist” decide to be anti-racist. Then they will understand the importance of removing a symbol of racial terror. Casting out the demons of terror.
But Jesus is right. To do so, they will have to first consider the cost – in friendships, in status, in power, and in their family. And then, if they cannot and we cannot pay the price, to admit it. We all have to do this.
To weed out the spectators from the large crowds, Jesus told any would-be followers to recognize the cost. But importantly, we also remember the joy of discipleship.
Where hatred roars, we will sing of love
Where fear stalks, we will stand with courage
Where bigotry rages, we will call for justice
Where pain overwhelms, we will extend comfort
Where systems oppress, we will work for change.
As we begin a new year, on Homecoming Sunday let’s embrace a deepening interplay of discipleship’s cost and joy. More important than gathering a larger crowd of spectators is that each of us become more deeply committed followers of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world