Sunday, April 29, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ
So James and John are all amped up. And really, who can blame them? When was the last time you were all amped up in a movement? James and John are totally engaged. These are heady days in their movement; Jesus’ message is gaining traction among all kinds of people. And James and John can taste it. And this is exactly what they signed up for. Exposing the powerful. Beating swords into ploughshares. Inaugurating the kingdom of God.
But then Jesus questions whether they get it, whether they really get him and where he’s going with all this. Are you prepared for the suffering? he asks. Will you welcome the losses, embrace the defeats? And, of course, James and John are totally engaged. Of course, they say. Of course, we’ll suffer with you. Just put us in charge. Just keep us close when the tide’s turning and the new world’s at hand. We’ll take responsibility.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that this matter of leadership, this matter of leadership in the movement, occasions conflict in the beloved community. Interesting and inevitable. For instance, what does leadership mean—really—in the context of liberation and resistance? How should Jesus’ disciples—folks like you and me—how should we practice leadership in transformational moments and settings? Which gifts are the necessary gifts? I imagine these are First Church questions. I know they are. And the questions themselves provoke conflict. The questions themselves test friendships and priorities. And it’s always been that way. All the way back to Moses and Miriam. The disciples are just following the ancient script. It’s what we do.
So what does leadership mean (what are the necessary gifts) in the context of liberation and resistance? This is where Jesus goes to work. This is where Jesus gets down to business. And here’s what he says:
“You know,” and this will be my translation. “You know that among the movers and shakers of the world, the players throw their weight around, and the powerbrokers are like tyrants leveraging their privilege.” My translation, right, but you get the point. “Among the movers and shakers of the world, the players throw their weight around, and the powerbrokers are like tyrants leveraging their privilege.” Something like that. “But it’s not so among you,” Jesus says, “but whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant in the movement, and whoever wishes to be first among you must humbly serve the common good.” In other words, the liberation project requires a different kind of leadership. This is where the rubber hits the road for Jesus; it really is. The liberation project requires a different kind of leadership.
Years ago, at Union Seminary in New York, my teacher Cornel West was talking about hedonism on Wall Street,and crushing poverty in city neighborhoods, and a spirituality of resistance. And I’ll never forget the way he put all this: “Nihilism,” Cornel West said, “is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care.” Still preaches, right? Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care. Which isn’t to say that arguments are unimportant, or that analysis has no place. Not at all. But the prophetic task of the church, the gospel task of the church is different. We practice leadership the way lovers make love: as generous partners and humble servants. Now I know this is way, way out there; but it’s gospel I think. We practice leadership the way lovers make love: as generous partners and poets of the flesh.
Now it’s not an easy thing, clearly. And this kind of leadership takes a lifetime to learn. But there is no other way. Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses. And then Cornel West punctuates the teaching, he puts an exclamation point on it in his book Race Matters: “A love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion.” If conversion is the turning of hearts and systems towards justice, there can be no meaningful turning without love. Daring love. Daily love. Durable love. A love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion!
What Jesus is doing, then, in the text this morning is embracing the conflict in his inner circle, teaching off it, and suggesting a love ethic for his movement. And with that in mind, I want to tell you another Union Seminary story that illuminates the ethic and puts the ball (squarely) in our court.
Now the great thing about Union in the 80s was this: liberation wasn’t a vague ideal, an option, it was a very particular mandate. I like to say liberation was something like a contact sport at Union. And I’ll be quite honest and say that, in a lot of ways, I wasn’t prepared for that. And the first time, the very first time I stepped into Union’s old chapel—for a noontime communion service—the whole thing nearly swallowed me whole.
That first week, chapel services were facilitated by students in the Black Students Association. And that first day, two black students presided at a communion table stacked with silver trays and those little shot glasses of grape juice. At the start, it was everything I expected at Union: a multiracial community of Christians, gathered from all over the country, at the intersection of Harlem and Broadway. It was an exhilarating scene: ancient sacraments contextualized in contemporary settings; activists and pastors mixing and mingling in worship. I remember thinking to myself: “Bring it on, Good God! Bring it on!” Kind of like James and John, really, I was all amped up!
But I underestimated seminary, at least for a day or two. Truth be told, I probably underestimated Jesus and the gospel too. Turns out that worship—when it’s honest anyway—is risky business. What’s that Annie Dillard line? We should pass out crash helmets, not programs, at the door! And in no time, those two students at the table had skipped any kind of prayer or small talk and were instead denouncing seminary administrators, the same administrators who’d welcomed us the day before and moved us in. One or two of them were sitting just then in the front row. The two students were calling them out—in chapel—for a series of summer lay-offs, extensive lay-offs devastating dozens of support staff and their families.
And almost every employee fired that summer—in what the seminary had called a cost-cutting necessity—almost every one was a person of color, with a family of color depending on them. “So welcome to Union,” one of the two said to us that day, in chapel. “And now what are you going to do?”
And that was just day one. Instead of a predictable communion service, two black students invoked a New Testament text (First Corinthians, if you’re keeping score), counseling a church divided by injustice to step away from the table, to refrain from celebrating the feast. Until such time as the injustice was addressed. Until such time as the beloved community recovered its heart and healed itself.
And just as abruptly, the two men took off their stoles, and their robes, right there in front of us, and walked out of the chapel. Just like that. No communion. Said they were on their way, directly, to the President’s office to register their protest there. Some in the chapel clapped as they left. Several followed them out. And others of us—and I have to confess that this included me—the rest of us just gasped. An opportunity, a call that I missed that day!
Now thankfully, the advisor to the Black Students Association that fall was the great historian of the black church Jim Washington. And Jim was a great big man with an equally big heart and deep roots in the civil rights movement. On top of all that, he was a Baptist minister, with a keen sense of timing, and he rose after a moment and spoke quietly and persuasively about the power of anger, the importance of protest and the integrity of worship. “Perhaps we should continue with our communion,” Jim said. “But we should meditate, as we do, on the broken body in which we participate.” And you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. “And we should meditate,” he said, “on the crucified Christ who is too often black and brown, and the burden of the gospel in this place.”
And with these words, Jim Washington took the bread in his huge hands and blessed it. And then he consecrated a cup of sweet juice, and invited a grateful but chastened community to serve one another in the traditional way. Which we did. And we lingered after that service, deep into the afternoon, sharing perspectives on the summer’s lay-offs, naming aloud those who’d lost their jobs, and strategizing around addressing this with administrators in days that followed.
Now in the many years since, I have remembered Jim’s ministry every time I’ve come across Jesus’ teaching on humility and the servant spirit of leadership. “You know,” Jesus says, “that among the movers and shakers of the world, the players throw their weight around, and the powerbrokers are like tyrants leveraging their privilege.” Something like that. “But whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must serve the common good.” You can’t just memorize this stuff and be done with it. You’ve got to live this gospel to get it. And Jim Washington got it.
Jim wasn’t just humoring a hostile crowd that afternoon, or placating a peeved people. He was insisting on communion, yes, but holding us accountable for racism and its nasty hold on communities we loved. The liberation project requires a different kind of leadership. In Jim’s eyes I saw vulnerability, but integrity too, in a hyper-charged environment. In his body, in the way he stood physically among us, I saw Christ-like compassion—for idealistic students, and angry agitators, and the invisible poor. For all of us. Jesus is looking for servant leaders, and his gospel is not for the faint of heart. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” When the moment came, Jim Washington was ready and available and unintimidated.
In the text this morning, Jesus is talking about a kind of fearless devotion to community—and to communion—even when that same community is shaken by doubt, disappointment and even rage. And what is fearless devotion? Watch him moving across the Palestinian landscape; watch him building a multicultural movement of souls whose only weapons are love and prayer. Watch him washing his friends’ feet as their hearts are breaking. Fearless devotion is Mother Teresa insisting that every dying 10-year-old in Calcutta be touched and treated like an angel. Fearless devotion is the priest in the barrio who cries with his displaced people, and honors their passion for justice. Anger is necessary, rage is appropriate. But fearless devotion is the language of liberation. Like Moses singing to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!” Or Mavis Staples to the riot police: “We shall not be moved!”
But Jim Washington, you see, is just one part of this story. Servant leadership does not always mean sitting still and staying put. I know you know this; and I want you to know that I know it too. I’m persuaded now that those two students who walked out that day were also exercising leadership (even Christ-like leadership) in their willingness to disrupt the status quo and enact solidarity through coordinated action. I’ve had a lot of years to think about this. Sometimes injustice is so entrenched, and racism so well baked into the American loaf that sitting still and staying put is nothing more and nothing less than complicity. A love ethic, a true love ethic, shakes us loose.
In leaving worship that day, those two students were exercising their own fearless devotion to community: to a community that included dishwashers and secretaries, janitors and librarians, invisible perhaps to the rest of us, but very much alive in the minds and hearts of those servant leaders and that beloved community.
So no, Jesus isn’t kidding around. And I know you know this. I came 3000 miles to be with you this morning, because I know you know this. This gospel, Jesus’ gospel, has an edge. “The Human One,” he says this morning, to you and to me, “the Human One came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In other words, without embodied solidarity, leadership amounts to something like complicity. And without disciplined commitment to the common good, leadership misses its mark. But not so among you, Jesus says. Not so among you.
And isn’t this what Alicia Garza and the women who inspired the Black Lives Matter movement have taught us over the last several years? Isn’t this what Emma Gonzalez and her classmates at Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland have taught us just this spring? Servant leadership does not always mean sitting still and staying put. Not so among you, Jesus says. Not so among you. Sometimes, oftentimes, servant leadership means getting up and walking out. And this isn’t easy for most of us: we’re going to have to help one another with this. Embodied solidarity is the road less traveled.
But Jesus doesn’t blink. Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst and ache for justice. Blessed is your discomfort. Blessed are you when you’re willing to go to jail, willing to face persecution for the common good. Blessed is your distress. Sometimes you have to jam the gears of the machine. Sometimes leadership means getting up and walking out. And that too is a love ethic: a love ethic that resists bitterness, a love ethic that moves us to action, a love ethic that clears out cynicism and sarcasm for courage and creativity. Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst and ache for justice. Just ask Alicia Garza about that, or Emma Gonzalez, or Jesus if you dare.
I’m guessing a good many of you have read the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose recent collection (called We Were Eight Years in Power) is a deep dive into issues of race and white supremacy and the legacy of Barack Obama. Ta-Nehisi pushes back against the notion that white America was somehow fooled into electing Donald Trump in 2016 and insists that we knew exactly what we were doing and who we were anointing that fall. And he suggests that our task now—our progressive, political task—is disruptive. Fearless, honest and disruptive.
I’d like to read just a couple of sentences from the last pages of his book:
“...there was nothing inevitable about Donald Trump’s election,” he writes, “and while great damage has been done by his election, at the time of this writing it is not yet the end of history. What is needed now is a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil—even in the service of warring against other evils. One must be able,” and I think this is Ta-Nehisi Coates at his best, “one must be able to name the bad bargain that whiteness strikes with its disciples—and still be able to say that it is this bargain, not a mass hypnosis that has held through boom and bust.”
So here’s what I want to say about leadership in the church. Here’s where the rubber hits the road for us. If we’re going to take Christianity seriously in 2018, if we’re going to inhabit this tradition prophetically, you and I have to deconstruct whiteness in America and expose the bargain whiteness continues to strike with its American disciples. Make sense? The project of building a beloved community is a disruptive project. We want to do it with love in our hearts. We’re called to do it with love in our hearts. But the project of building a beloved community is a disruptive project. At every level. In every dimension.
And this is the primary task for servant leaders in the American church. For any of us who take Jesus’ love ethic to heart. And it’s a collaborative task, I think, and a relational challenge.
And here’s what that means to me. As a white man in America, as a white man in the church, I’ve got to deconstruct my own whiteness—debunk it, raze it to the ground and start from scratch. But I need the rest of you to help me do this; I can’t do it by myself, relying on my own wits, apart from your passion and your pain. It’s a relational challenge. And then, and then, I’ve got to live into a whole new way of being in the church, a whole new way of neighboring in my life, a whole new way of collaborating in America. I’ve got to do this work, and we’ve got to do this work, together. A multiracial, multicultural church!
Now Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t particularly concerned with the church or religion for that matter. But he’s spot-on, I think, about this bargain we’ve accommodated in all too many ways. And the thing is, we cannot and must not tolerate this bargain. Not in the church. Not in the Body of Christ. Again, Jesus isn’t particularly vague. Our mandate is a single circle, an interdependent body, a beloved community. Our mandate is the gospel church: no longer Jew or Greek, no longer rich or poor, no longer male or female. Being a Christian—being “in Christ” as we say—means “a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil.” We’ve got to be brave. This isn’t a project you finish in a weekend, or a decade, or even a lifetime. But it’s the way of the cross, the disciple’s journey, the vocation of churches like ours. And it brings us, if we follow, if we persist, if we open our eyes, it brings us to the threshold of Easter and the promise of resurrection. Where we can see who we are and who (by God’s grace) we can one day become.
So this is my commitment to you, friends, and my promise to Jesus too. If you wish and if you choose, I will partner with you to build a gospel church right here at 10th and G. We will not rest, we will not sleep, we will not settle for anything else. We will take up Jesus’ cross—and we’ll take it up together—trusting in God’s love to see us through seasons of bewilderment and despair. We will pray together and laugh together and weep together, and together we will deconstruct whiteness and patriarchy and heterosexism and every other expression of bigotry and division on this planet. That’s what we’ll do. Right here at 10th and G. First Church will mean fearless devotion.
Because, here’s the thing: our mandate in the church is liberation. And our mandate in the church is love. And our mandate in the church is courage. And we will not rest, we will not sleep, we will not settle for anything else.