St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Love and the “Box” of Privilege – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    October 17, 2021

    “You do not know what you are asking.”

    This is Jesus’ response to the brothers James and John in today’s Gospel. These brothers Zebedee believe that Jesus is one who will lead their movement to worldly power and they want to be on the inside where the power is. And Jesus admonishes the brothers saying, “You do not know what you are asking.”

    What is more interesting and disappointing here is that the other disciples get angry, not because the request the brothers made was immoral, but because they see the brothers as attempted to grab power away from the rest of them.

    Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

    And Jesus responds by reminding the whole community what his teaching is about – Love.  A love so great that it cannot be taken. A love so complete that it requires our very lives. A love so powerful that it saves the world. And this Love is expressed through non-violent service.

    Mark offers us a window into Jesus’ community of followers – into ourselves, helping us to see just how easy it is to get caught up in the struggle for position and rank and privilege, trying to be on the inside and have access to power, to have privilege.

    And Jesus is saying that it’s this very thing, this very need we have to be on the inside, to have access to privilege… that is a path of violence. It is violent because worldly power can only be taken when someone else loses it. I can only be on the inside if someone else is on the outside because there is no inside without the outside. And being on the inside must always be defended and protected so it can’t be taken away.

    When Jesus sees the community in a struggle for power, he points out that this is what the current Roman political situation is: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

    But Jesus is teaching a different way, a non-violent way, the way of Love.  Jesus says, “It is not so among you;
    but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”

    Jesus’ path, the path of Love, the path of non-violence, however, is antithetical to the world’s need for power and privilege. The Jesus Movement is and always has been one of non-violence, a path that seeks to dismantle systems of privilege and power by helping us to be transformed by Love, for Love.

    When I was on the Bishop’s staff in the Diocese of Michigan, I attended a workshop that helped me to understand just how violent human systems of privilege can be. And it helped me understand more about what my Savior Jesus is trying to teach me.

    The leader drew a large box on a sheet of paper. And she asked us to name traits or aspects that humans could have that would put them either inside the box or outside the box.
    White went inside the box.  Person of Color went outside the box.
    Education went inside the box.  Lack of education went outside the box.
    Good credit went inside the box.  Bad credit went outside the box.
    Skinny went inside the box.  Fat went outside the box.
    Straight went inside the box.  LGBTQ went outside the box.
    So on and so forth…

    And, as the exercise went on, I started to recognize in myself my need to protect those parts of me that were inside the box. To defend my right to be inside the box in some way, even if it seemed unjust. And in that moment, I realized my own violent tendencies: In my attachment to the parts of me that are inside the box; In my striving to deny my own humanity and my own worth by feeling a sense of shame over the parts of me that are outside the box; And in my anger, my bitterness, and my resentment for those who have the things that are inside the box that I can’t have or don’t have.

    That’s not love.  That is not a non-violent path.
    There is no love of God and there is no love of others.
    And there is certainly no real love of self.

    But this is how the world is constructed. Because we deny the parts of ourselves that are not inside the box, however we define that.

    Perhaps we value capacity and want to be able to always be the one to help or do things ourselves.  But what about the part of us that needs help?  That’s not inside the box, that’s outside the box.  But it’s still a part of us.

    Perhaps we value success and want to have everything together – house, family, bank account, nice things.  But what about the part of us that can’t quite get it together and feel like failure? Or we might value being smart or being attractive or being right. But we don’t know everything and there is always a part of us that we don’t think looks good, and there are always times we are not right.

    These are all ways that we have learned to seek love from outside ourselves.  But it’s a hole that is never filled.  We’re always seeking, but the yearning never goes away.  And behind every need to get it right or get it done or be the one… is deep, deep, sometimes hidden self-judgment that unless I do, unless I am… I am not worthy of love at all.

    The thing that we think will “save us” ends up being the reason for our violence.  The thing that keeps us “inside the box” is what creates our violent tendencies.  And I’m not talking necessarily about physical violence, although that’s a possibility, but emotional, mental, spiritual violence.

    So, what saves us is not the things that put us inside the box.
    What saves us is love. A love so deep, so unbounded, so wild and extravagant, so beyond our wildest dreams… that we are awed by its presence. A love so complete and so forgiving that we cannot imagine it. A love so powerful that it saves the world. Because it demolishes the box.

    True power is not about having the thing in the box, it’s not about having more.  It’s actually about having less.  Because in losing our life we will gain life itself.  In letting go of the thing we think we cannot live without, we will be given new life.

    Last week in the Gospel, we heard Jesus tell us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  The core of that lesson is that the Invitation to Love isn’t “Here, have more.”  The Invitation to Love is, “Here, have less.”

    And if the Invitation to Love is, “Here, have less.” Then the Path of Love is one of noticing when we are seeking to have more so we might learn to Love rather than have.

    This is why Jesus is saying, “You do not know what you’re asking.”  He’s saying: “Are you ready to have less?” Jesus teaches us about this Path of Love today by pointing out what it is not and reminding us that true power is in loving, non-violent service.

    I quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in his sermon preached at the Royal Wedding a few years ago. Bishop Michael said, “Jesus started the most revolutionary movement in history, a movement founded on the unconditional love of God for the world.  A movement mandating people to live that love and in so doing to change not only their lives, but the very life of the world itself… the power to change the world. 

    Imagine a world where love is the way…
    When love is the way then no child will go to bed hungry ever again… poverty will become history… the earth will become a sanctuary…
    When love is the way we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside and study war no more…
    When love is the way there’s plenty good room for all God’s children… we will treat each other like we’re actually family… we know that God is the source and we are all children of God.”

    The box is gone.

    This is the Path of Love: To lay down our desire to have so that all God’s children have the room to live. To lay down our worldly desire to achieve, to succeed, to control, to be right… so that all of us, all the parts of ourselves, have the room to live.

    Love is the ethic of the community Jesus was building and is building today in this place.
    Let us go and do likewise. This is how we are healed.  And this is how we are called to live as the Body of Christ in and for the world.