By Nichola Torbett, a sermon re-posted from The Longing is the Compass (September 6, 2022)
I was honored to preach the following sermon at Skyline Congregational Church, UCC, on September 4, 2022. The focus scripture was Luke 14: 25-33.
That subtitle comes from a quote from Carl Jung, from a part of his Red Book in which he was describing his spiritual journey. He says, “In my case, Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.”
[Invite people to visualize this in a little guided meditation–descending the ladders, the clod of earth that is myself. Notice sensations in the body, emotions (grief? fear? relief?), resistance.]
I think this “dirt clod” image provides us with a key to this very challenging text from the gospel of Luke.
But first, let me start with a story. In the winter of 2012, I was spending much of my time sitting on a cement step in front of city hall. We were in the last weeks of the Occupy movement. The tent encampment in front of city hall had, by this time, been dismantled, violently, by police, not once but twice, and yet, still, a few dozen folks were holding vigil in the plaza, honoring the dream of a transformed economic system and a more equitable and loving way to live.
I don’t think the term “movement chaplain” had been invented yet, but I definitely wanted to be in it with these folks. We were such a ragtag assortment of people—formerly incarcerated people mixing with disaffected graduate students from the Geography and Slavic Languages departments—I remember those specifically—and with unhoused veterans, grassroots journalists, a particularly memorable radical yoga teacher….It was wild, and in my experience, whenever you find such unexpected people working together and doing life together, God is in it. God is up to something. So I wanted to be in the mix. And I wasn’t the only one. There were about a dozen of us from the faith community who were spending time in what we had dubbed “the interfaith tent,” which at that point was really a large umbrella, since by then tents had been forbidden anywhere on the plaza. Every day, we set up our big soccer umbrella and dressed it in colorful fabrics and pillows and twinkle lights and then spent the day talking and praying with anyone who wandered by and was willing to engage.
On the night I want to tell you about, we stayed late because there were rumors that the police were going to come yet again to clear the plaza of even this scaled down protest presence, and we wanted to bear witness. There was grief in the air that night, but we made the best of it. Someone had brought a fiddle, and someone else a guitar, and we were bundled in sleeping bags with candles all around us, and it was all kind of beautiful, one of those “times out of time.” And then, sure enough, around midnight, the cops were there, dressed in riot gear, demanding that we leave. I was wearing this clergy collar, I remember, and I also remember the officer who shoved me in the back with his baton, saying, “Get moving. We don’t want to arrest YOU.” Meaning, I guess, a clergy person.
I remember wheeling around and snapping, “Who DO you want to arrest?”
That night was one of the first times I realized just how much privilege this collar grants me. It marks me with a certain status, a place in the world that is honored and, to some degree, protected. It grants me some respect in a world that doesn’t always take women seriously, even white women, even white women with a lot of educational privilege. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes like that. Didn’t enjoy it.
When Jesus says, “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,” he is not asking us to harbor bitter feelings toward our family members. He’s asking us to give up our markers of status. [Take off collar]
You see, in first-century Palestine, your bloodline dictated everything about your place in the society–your status, your wealth, your work, your identity, your community of equals, your degree of honor or shame. Also, the words often translated “love” and “hate” refer less to personal feelings of affection or resentment and more to commitments of loyalty. Jesus is asking us to renounce our commitment to our place in the social hierarchy, no matter how high or low that place may be. He’s asking us, not just to descend the social ladder, I think, but to abolish it. By refusing to acknowledge it.
This is hard. This is really hard. There’s a lot to let go of as we become clods of earth among other clods of earth.
There was a time in my life when I worked as a personal assistant to a really amazing, charismatic Black preacher. Many of you know her, the Rev. Lynice Pinkard. She’s preached here a few times. She’s fabulous. BUT what I noticed about myself, when I was working as her assistant, and we’d be out somewhere and she’d introduce me, is that I’d somehow feel compelled to mention my advanced degrees. My former career in publishing. I needed people to know I was not JUST someone’s assistant. I was invested in that status.
This isn’t just about career and education. There are lots of ways to cling to status. So that’s my question for you: How are you invested in your social status, and what does that look like for you? When and where do you feel tempted to mention your career? Your education or awards? When and why do you drop the names of well-known acquaintances or casually mention where or with whom you vacationed?
Even just now, telling you the story about my involvement in the Occupy movement, I face the temptation to mention, oh so casually, how many times I have been arrested for justice, to recount my activist bonafides, which is yet another way to seek status. I loved the idea of being someone, in the eyes of the world. I would like you to think I’m quite something.
And that’s a barrier to following Jesus. Because, see, Jesus ends up on the cross. And the cross is the ultimate humiliation. The ultimate failure.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Anyone who is not willing to lose it all, to face the utmost humiliation, cannot follow Jesus.
This is hard!
It’s hard in this culture to escape the desire to be someone, to be thought significant, whether by profession or credentials or association or accomplishment. No one wants to be ridiculed or thought a fool or a nobody.
Jesus tells two stories in this week’s reading about people plotting carefully to make sure they can succeed at what they set out to do—building a tower, in one instance, and fighting a battle, in the other. It would be understandable if you read these stories as reminders to be cautious, to undertake only those tasks that you can complete successfully in the eyes of the world, lest, as Jesus warns, you be thought a fool. These stories have been preached this way many, many times.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying at all. In fact, I think he is offering up a critique of the penny-counting builder and the victory-seeking king. Remember the Tower of Babel, the one the people were building because they had gotten so impressed with themselves and that caused God to scatter the people and confuse their languages so that they could no longer work together? That should inform how we read this story of the building magnate and his plans for a tower. As for the king, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of warnings not to put faith in chariots and military might and imperial power but in the saving power of God, so I do not think Jesus is lifting up this carefully calculating king. These stories are ironic, and they are meant to warn us that discipleship is no success story. It will invite ridicule in the eyes of the world.
Jesus identified with the “suffering servant” described by the prophet Isaiah:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Who are the despised today? Look there for your image of Jesus. Then aspire to follow in that direction.
Jesus died a humiliating death, his movement, so far as anyone could see, in ruins, an utter failure. Are you willing to risk that? Are you willing to be a fool for love?
Are you willing to show up to the city council meeting or the board of supervisors meeting even though they are almost certain to vote the wrong way? Can you deal with being on the losing team? Are you willing to stand with your coworker who alienates management by speaking out about inequitable policies, even if her tone doesn’t seem prudent to you? Are you willing to stand with marginalized people in their fight for change, even if their tactics offend your friends and neighbors?
This is hard! But it’s what Jesus is asking. And it is also the gateway to life more abundant. That’s the good news.
Because here’s the thing: Every marker of status is also a trap. President Joe Biden is one of the most powerful people in the world, and yet he does not have the freedom to fall off a bicycle. Everyone talks about the privileges enjoyed by white men, and those are real, but what about the costs? White straight men, when is the last time you wept, in grief or in joy? What has happened to the tears you have nt shed? Also, how easy is it for you to ask for help? How much have we who are white LOST in terms of relationship—genuine mutual vulnerable relationship—with Black and Brown people? My mentor whom I’ve already mentioned used to say that she experienced this collar that grants certain privileges as a noose around her neck, and it has taken me a while to understand what she meant. But I understand now. It is so often a barrier, a separation from the very people I most want to be in relationship with.
And every status marker that we hang onto is an attachment to the status quo. By identifying with our place in this social order, we help to hold it in place.
And friends, we know the status quo has to change. The weight of our status-seeking and elaborate supremacy systems is now collapsing the supports that we need to live. Decades of disinvestment this week left Jackson, Mississippi without water to drink. Pakistan, meanwhile, is under water, while most of the marine life in our own beloved Lake Merritt died off this week, falling victim to a changing climate and human supremacy. Nearly everything about how we have been living is going to have to change. As adrienne maree brown has said, “We are in an imagination battle.” We have to imagine a new way of being alive together.
And that means relinquishing our own stable places within the old order. It is going to mean risk. It is going to mean following leadership of those who have been systemically demeaned and humiliated. It might bring failure and ridicule. It is also our best chance at life, real life, life abundant and eternal, the good stuff that Jesus promises us.
Gandhi has called this process a willingness to be reduced to zero, willingness to be a nobody among nobodies, a “clod of earth,” as Jung put it. From this place, from this surrender of everything we have to the love of God and God’s creation, we enter into real solidarity with all that is alive. As little clods of earth ourselves, we are able to reach out our hands to ourselves, including those parts of ourselves we have abandoned and forsaken because they were too embarrassing. We reach out our hands to all the other little clods of earth all around us—the angry ones and the lonely ones and the humiliated ones and the ones who are gasping for breath in waters too poisoned to breath, and in so doing, we forsake the old life and enter into the life eternal.
Gandhi further says “Renunciation means absence of hankering after fruit [,after privileges]. As a matter of fact, he who renounces reaps a thousandfold….By extinguishing his own desire for power, the satyagrahi [the love warrior, the disciple of Jesus] seeks the authentic power of the people.”
What does it mean for us to release our own desire for power and instead seek the authentic power of the bat ray or the striped bass, the honeybee and the coastal redwood? The power of the systemically shut out and dismissed and broken? What kind of humility does this demand of us, and are we willing to descend a thousand ladders to reach it, to release our stranglehold on status and the search for supremacy? Are we willing to become dirt clods for love?
Nichola Torbett is a writer, preacher, organizer, eager student of social movements, activist, and dog-walker. Nichola writes from my social location as a white, raised-poor, queer, cis-gendered woman.