It feels like the lectionary is one week off. Since this is Gathering Sunday, the week that Church School, Choir and committee work begins again for a new year, it would be perfect to preach the preceding passage in Luke-The Great Banquet. There Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a banquet where the usual guests refuse to show up, so the host starts inviting everyone, not just close friends and family, but the poor, blind and lame- anyone to fill the seats. We strive to be a great banquet church that lives out the hospitality of God’s love and grace. We do this by emphasizing an open communion table where all are welcome, by being and Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming GLBTQ people as full disciples. We emphasize God’s extravagant welcome for a number of good reasons:
- We believe in grace, that our loving God is a God forgiveness and second chances.
- We want to grow and welcome more people into our community.
- We also want to counter-balance loud Christian voices who are dogmatic, racist, sexist and homophobic.
So I would love to start the new church year with a resounding, welcoming theme of the Great Banquet – but that was last week.
This week theme is count the cost. Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me.” So apparently the church potluck is over, there are no free lunches and it is time to get down to business. I find this message of counting the cost difficult to preach, because I fear saying something to the congregation that I may not be able to do myself. I am very much like the builder to which Jesus refers. I carefully decide ahead of time if something is doable. I like to start with small successes and gradually build to bigger challenges. Like the king before the battle, I only take on struggles that I think I can win. I am a pragmatist, the master of the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” I am not don Quiote, I do not charge windmills and I’m not interested in hopeless causes. No one will mistake me for have a martyr’s complex. I have a pragmatist’s complex.
“Pick up your cross and follow me,” are the most difficult words in the Bible. What might I be called to do if I take these words seriously? Some of my clergy colleagues are being arrested to resist the XL Pipeline, and I share their concerns about global climate change. After spending hours on moving towards our new high-efficiency natural gas furnace, replacing all the light bulbs in the church, riding my bike to work, must I also practice civil disobedience? And who do you think would get the newsletter out if I did that? I might get fired. Martin Luther King’s congregation in Montgomery, Alabama did not grow while he was a pastor there, and they mutually agreed it was more important that he leave their pulpit and be a leader in the civil rights movement. But perhaps global climate change is too important to wait for my pragmatic gradual approach to life.
And what if Congress approves missile strikes in Syria, and the war in the Middle East escalates as Iran retaliates in against Israel, and Russia threatens Saudi Arabia? There are so many causes and so little of me. And when I count the cost, I really like to win.
So I feel tension between the vision of the great banquet where Jesus welcomes everyone, and the challenge to pick up the cross and follow Jesus, which is a challenge few of us will follow. This was raised in my mind during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, especially in an NPR feature story about Viola Liuzzo, a woman who was killed during the civil rights marches:
The housewife and mother of five had been an active NAACP member in Detroit and was horrified at the violence she saw inflicted upon black protesters on television. So when she heard of a four-day, 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to support voting rights, she packed a bag. Liuzzo told her husband: “It’s everybody’s fight.” She kissed her children goodbye and began the drive south….
Led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other marchers walked to Montgomery, where King spoke on the Capitol steps, telling the crowd that freedom was imminent:
“How long? Not Long! Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long!” King said in a now-famous speech. That night, Liuzzo, tired but exhilarated, shuttled local marchers back to their homes. A car filled with Ku Klux Klan members tried to force her off the road. Finally, they pulled alongside Liuzzo’s car and shot her in her head. The 39-year-old died instantly.
Liuzzo’s death sparked a national debate. Unfortunately it was not the debate about Klansman violence and racism. The July 1965 Ladies Home Journal published a readers’ poll asking if she was a good mother. 55 percent of the readers said “No.” (I am surprised 45 percent offered their support in 1965.But no one asked these questions about men in the movement.) The sinister side of this debate is that, according to FBI files, J. Edgar Hoover circulated rumors that she had gone to the South to sleep with black men, in order to discredit her. I’m sure the Luizzo’s thought about the risks and the time away from her children, and decided it was worth it. How can you count the cost when you can’t imagine, even in your wildest dreams, people would act with such malice?
Luizzo’s life and death bring me face-to-face with my own dilemmas about what activist roles to take, what causes to join, what will be the impact on my family life? When you believe in community and social justice, how do you sort out raising children, finding the time for competing demands, and deciding like Luizzo when she said “It’s everybody’s fight.”
Being a pragmatist, I like to have guidelines, so here are a few of my thoughts.
- Raising children shapes the future and you are doing something important even if you are not on the so-called front lines. Our kids are on the front lines of the toughest moral challenges our society faces regarding race, class, sexuality, the environment and life choices. Having an excellent church school is one of the most important things we can do for a more just society.
- Our kids need to see us engaging in activism and making the world better. My Mom took me on peace marches protesting the Vietnam War when I was 5 years old. This has always been a touch stone event of my life. (When I wore my black arm band to kindergarten, my teacher took it from me, cut it up with scissors, and told me I was bad in front of the class, for being insensitive to the boys whose Dad’s were off fighting the war. One of them later whispered to me, “I want to protest the war too, and bring my Dad home.”)
- Quaker activist Thomas Kelly often advised that our causes and concerns be few, but deeply held.
- One way I try to follow the words “pick up your cross” this way. Every day I try to do at least one hard thing I don’t want to do. I make the phone call I don’t want to make, or don’t have to make. Make an apology. Write the letter. Start the project I have been procrastinating. Be willing to take the controversial stand and listen to someone’s pain. Consider this daily discipline training for the day when you face your hardest dilemmas.
- The themes of the inclusive Great Banquet and the narrow path of picking up the cross may be paradoxical, but not mutually exclusive. If we believe in the banquet where everyone is welcome, we will soon have to count the cost to protect the feast. The forces of exclusion are powerful, and the ministry of hospitality will also need to demand justice. There are times when we have to join the courage of Viola Luizzo and say, “It’s everyone’s fight.”