The Rev. Dr. Mary Abrams
February 25, 2018
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The first thing I do when I begin to prepare a sermon is to read the lessons appointed for the week. I usually begin with the Gospel. When I read this week’s Gospel and found it was about denying myself and picking up my cross, my first reaction was “I don’t want to preach about that.” About burdens and carrying crosses. I had visions of the movies and paintings depicting Jesus carrying that heavy cross, how it bent him over, struggling to move it. It was more than he could bare. It is more then I want to bare. Just thinking about It feels heavy. You know me, I like to talk about love and light things, things that make us happy and hopeful. So I looked at the other readings. Maybe I could preach on them.
I could talk about 99 year old Abram’s faith and God’s covenant with him. I could talk about Sarah faith having a baby way beyond the years she should be having babies. Faith, that would have been a good topic to preach about. But I kept feeling a tug, pulling me back to this passage from Mark. It wasn’t want I wanted to hear but then I’m sure it wasn’t want the disciples wanted to hear either. Jesus was telling them that he was going to suffer and was going to be killed.
The disciples did not want to hear that. Who would. They were following Jesus because they thought he was great. Remember the Jews were looking for “The Messiah” one who would be another King David, another Goliath killer. They were waiting for a messiah to drive out the Romans as David had driven the Philistines out. They expected the messiah to make the Jews a great people that others would fear. The disciples thought that Jesus was going to be great and mighty and they wanted to share in that greatness. I imagine when Jesus said that he was going to be killed the disciples were shocked, disturbed, and confused. They expected success, not failure, joy not sorrow, they expected a crown not a cross.
Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends. As any of us would do when a friend is behaving strangely or saying things that could put them in danger , he went to Jesus and said, “Look Jesus you can’t talk that way in front of the disciples. They don’t like it and it scares them. Maybe you’re just having a bad day. You need to relax.”
Jesus said to Peter, “don’t tempt me, this is hard for me too.” Jesus was human as well as divine. Jesus, the man, did not want to suffer the type of death he knew he was facing. But he knew it was unavoidable.
Then Jesus went even further when he said to the disciples that not only would he suffer but that they would suffer as well. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow me.” Jesus is talking to us also.
If we want to follow Christ then we need to pick up our crosses. As heavy as they might be whether we want to or not. Well, I just have to lighten this load a bit, because Jesus also said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. When I hear this I think of a yoke that is fitted across the necks of oxen to make them a team. A well-made yoke distributes the load evenly, making the task easier, the load lighter. When Jesus invites us to take his yoke and to learn from him, he is inviting us to join him in this harness, to allow him to take the lead and to let him help us through difficult places. If we are yoked to Jesus he will always help carry the burden of our crosses and show us what needs to be done and how to do it.
So now that we are yoked to Jesus lets look at some of the crosses we have to bare. I’m not going to talk about the things that we all are concerned about, our families, money, health, security, old age, the tough choices we have to make, loneliness and thousand other things that can burden us. These are real burdens and yes Jesus is there to help with them. But the crosses I want to talk about today and crosses that many of us don’t recognize, or understand or in some cases don’t even believe exist, they are the crosses of privilege.
Most of us in this room just by the virtue of being born with white skin are privileged. We have the cross of white privilege. White privilege is not something that we asked for, it is not something that we earned but our white skin provides us with “perks” that people of color do not have. Some simple things that most of us have never given a second thought to. When I cut my finger I can easily find a band aid that matches my skin tone. Or when I stay at a hotel they provide complementary shampoo that works on the texture of my hair. These “perks” may seem insignificant but over a life time take a toll on people of color. White privilege also creates real advantages for us, protects us from the challenges that people of color face. Our skin color does not work against us in terms of how people perceive our financial state, public speaking skills, or job performance. People do not assume that we got where we are professionally of because of affirmative action programs. Store security personnel or law enforcement officers do not harass us, pull us over or follow us because of my skin color. We did not have to talk with our children about why people hate them just because of the color of their skin. White privilege shapes the view of the world in which we live and the way in which the world views us. Standard textbooks mostly reflect people with our color skin and their contributions to the world. The contributions of people of color are left out for the most part. When we look at our money and monuments on the National Mall in Washington we see mostly people of our race widely represented and celebrated.
In the book we read for our Epiphany discussion series “Living Into God’s Dream” one of the authors Lerita Coleman Brown says that “Whiteness is an unacknowledged social norm often equated with being American, dominant and privileged. Other people have a race, we are just people. We see the evidence of this norm in news reporting. A race is used to describe someone only if they are not white, a black minister, a Chinese author or an indian doctor or we hear the race of a perpetrator if he or she is non-white but a white male suspect is typically just a male suspect.
About half of us in this room have the cross of male privilege. We all know or at least the women know, that there are “perks” that men receive just by virtue of being a man. As with white privilege men did not ask for this privilege nor did they earn it. But our current cultural expectations, our legislative systems, and social programming work to constantly place men at the top. Men consistently achieve, succeed, and benefit at the expense of women. That’s called male privilege.
Men can make choices to have both career and family without people assuming it’s a challenge or an unusual achievement for them to “have it all.” Common vocabulary favors the male gender as the default language, like mankind, foreman, and chairman or sometimes just the word “man” is used when referring to all people. We find this Male default language right here in our own worship services. Men can buy a car without salespeople assuming they can be taken advantage of and chances are, they’ll be offered a better price than a woman. Men are less likely to be the target of street harassment and domestic abuse. Doctors are more likely to take men seriously when they tell their symptoms. These are just a few examples of the “perks” of male privilege. I googled Male privilege and found a web site that listed 167 perks that men receive just because that were born a man.
Most of us in this room have the cross of heterosexual privilege. Again if we are heterosexual we get “perks” that non heterosexuals do not get. Like the other privileges we did not ask for them we were just born this way.
As heterosexuals we are not identified or labeled, politically, socially, economically, or otherwise by our sexual orientation. No one questions the “normality” of our sexuality or believes that our sexuality was “caused” by psychological trauma, sin, or abuse. We do not have to fear that our family, friends, or co-workers will find out about our sexual orientation, and that their knowing will have negative consequences for us. We get paid leave from work and condolences from colleagues if our life partner dies. In the event of our life partner’s death, we can inherit automatically under probate laws. Our sexual orientation is not used to exclude us from any profession or organization. We are not accused of being deviant, warped, perverted, or psychologically confused, or dysfunctional because of our sexual orientation. People don’t try to fix us.
We are not bad people. We haven’t asked for these privileges. You don’t have to be a bad person to benefit from any of these privileges or any other the our privileges that I didn’t talk about, Intellectual privilege, health privilege, wealth privilege many other privileges. Recognizing our privilege doesn’t mean we don’t deserve good things.
But once we understand that these, often invisible perks, aren’t available to everyone, we should be able see why addressing privilege means recognizing that people of all races, that people of all genders and people of all sexual orientations deserve equal access to basic respect and justice. This unbalance of privilege is a result of human greed. We, humans, have created this world of privilege for some. God did not create humanity for some of us to have more than others. God created us ALL in God’s own image. In the Bible we read that God shows no partiality or favoritism and that we are to value others above ourselves.
We can’t choose to give up privilege, privilege, by definition, is an unearned advantage and we cannot choose to not have it. Guilt and shame are not productive ways to deal with it. Privilege maintains itself through silence and denial. It has been said that If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. It is our Christian duty and our vow as baptized Christians to speak up for injustice and for those who have less than we have. So while we cannot get rid of our privilege, we can acknowledge it. When we force privilege into view and discuss it openly we engage in solidarity with those who do not share these privileges with us. Privilege will never go away until the systems in our society that cause discrimination go away. In our own daily lives, we must work to make those systems visible and call them into question, so that someday we may all enjoy the benefits of being on equal footing with each other and have equal respect as God has created us to be.
Picking up the cross of privilege may mean denying ourselves some of these privileges but that is what Jesus invites us to do if we want to follow him. And remember when we are yoke with Jesus he will help us not only carry the burden but he will guide us to the solutions.