Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
If you’ve known me for a while, you’ve heard me talk about the long list of podcasts I listen to. I listen in the car, I listen while I cook dinner, I listen while I fold my laundry, I listen while I walk around my neighborhood, I listen on airplanes...I pretty much listen to podcasts any time I’m not reading, writing, or talking. Through these podcasts, I listen to so many different voices—literally and figuratively—and learn so much about the stories of people who are not me. One of the things I enjoy most about the podcasts I listen to is the invitation into the realities of people I have never met and will never meet, or might never have known about any other way.
In the last several years that podcasts have really burst on the scene, I have changed so much about how I source news, how I assess situations of injustice, what I choose to learn more about, and where I go to learn more about something. As someone who talks and listens as my job, it’s especially important that I take time to wonder about whose voices I am not hearing, and whose voices are getting all the air time. Who am I at the table with, and who have I not even noticed I haven’t invited to the table, and whose table have I made myself unavailable for? What of my identities do I think of as normative or neutral, when in fact they’re a totally subjective lens through which I see the world? There’s something very particular about listening to the voices of people who are different from me in some ways, and similar to me in other ways, and hearing directly from them about their joys and challenges. The more voices we hear, the more likely we are to make choices that invite more people to the table.
My all-time favorite podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, is hosted by two best friends, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. They talk about a wide range of topics, and have a wide range of guests—except that they only interview women. They have had high-powered women like Senator Kamala Harris on their podcast, and they have had friends of theirs who are visual artists on their podcast. They’re really just out here to amplify the voices of people who are often not heard from or valued at the same level as those in the majority.
Last week, their episode featured Georgia Governor candidate Stacey Abrams, and some reflections on our participation in the long arc of justice. If you have not already heard about her on the internet somewhere, Stacey Abrams, if elected next month, will be the first African American woman to govern a US State. She is brilliant, and I eagerly await the likely very close election results in Georgia. She spoke on the podcast about the wide-ranging work of justice in this society, and how her work builds on the work done before her, and prepares the way for work that will come after her.
In reflecting on this cultural moment, Ann and Aminatou talked about being part of a relay race, receiving the baton from those who came before them, doing their part, and then handing off their work to the next person to come. We will see change in our lifetime that began lifetimes ago, and we will witness injustice that is not resolved in our lifetime.
Aminatou quoted Marian Wright Edelman, a longtime activist for the rights of children, and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. A 79-year-old African American woman, Marian Wright Edelman is no stranger to the long road toward freedom and justice for all. Marian Wright Edelman said “Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn.”
I want to stitch that on a pillow, tattoo it on myself, project it on a building, wear it on a t shirt...you get the picture. Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn. Does that resonate with you, as a Christian? We are part of a tradition that spans thousands of years, and will—God willing—carry on for thousands more. Our participation in the life of this world is one piece of a long relay race, generation on generation. The goodness of generations past can triumph over present evil, and our goodness now can triumph over future evil.
It is funny, to me, that though we are part of a loooooong story, we are sometimes still having the same conversations over and over and over. As though the previous generations didn’t settle it, and so we have to pick up where they left off—or even start again at the beginning! Tonight’s Gospel text is one of those stories.
As the story goes, a man with many possessions knelt before Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. He was a faithful man, following the commandments as he had been taught. But something was still missing from his understanding. Jesus notices this, and replies, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:17-31). The man is devastated, because this will be a tremendous sacrifice for him, as the text tells us he had many possessions he would have to part with.
This is one of those stories that we have a ton of trouble with, because we are unsure whether we are supposed to receive it literally or figuratively. In the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions, we interpret scripture with great care, and are quick to resist literal readings. We oppose Biblical literalism when it harms us—when it undermines, degrades, silences, and oppresses. This is important.
Tonight’s gospel, however, is an instance in which Jesus was probably being very literal! Because it is hard to accept, we explain it away. “He may have meant that then, but that doesn’t mean we are expected to do that now,” we say. Or we spiritualize it, saying that we need to slough off the immaterial things that weigh us down. This is insufficient.
When Jesus says “sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” he does not mean “decide you’re done with a couple of old things and donate them somewhere and then replace them in a few months with new things and maybe give a few dollars to your church.” Now, you can look at me and know that I do have not engaged in this practice. I have many more material possessions than are remotely necessary for my survival or even for my enjoyment. The thesis of this sermon is not to provide you with feelings of shame about how much or how little you own.
The thesis of this sermon, perhaps, is more about provoking you to wonder about what you own, and what you buy, and where you buy it from. In this economy, all who are rich are part of an oppressive system. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. We who gather as Christians and wonder together about what that means for our lives are invited, this week, to wonder about our relationship to richness and to poverty.
At this moment in your life, you may not be or feel particularly rich. Remember the relay race, though. You are here at UC Davis receiving a world class education—or you have graduated with a world class education, already, and are here for various other reasons. With that, you can enter the wider world and give back to your communities. You can enjoy your time here, and learn and grow in all the ways that you can—in the classroom and out. You will have a responsibility, after graduation, to all those who helped you on your way to this place, and to those who will follow you.
How will you act out of gratitude for that which you have received? How will you make space for more people to receive the education you did? You may not know the answer to this question tonight—and that is okay! It may not be that specific action from you will result in an individual admission to a university, right, but, in what way will you as an alum or as a citizen participate in a society that provides more opportunities for more people? How will you be a good ancestor?
Just as Jesus tells us that we who are rich are accountable to the poor, we who are the majority are accountable to the minority. We are responsible for caring for our own, and who is “our own” should be wider than just Christians or just Americans. The anti-Semitic propaganda on campus last week is a sign that our community, to some degree, is unbalanced. We are not accountable to one another as a community in the way that Jesus taught.
White supremacy cannot be allowed to continue to fester at UC Davis, and though we in this room may not have been directly targeted by this event, we can work to prevent the next one. We can support our Jewish siblings in the ways they request; we can ensure that when anti-Semitic, white supremacist, or otherwise racist language or imagery appears in our presence, we call it out as hateful and inappropriate.
This is an issue that has plagued UC Davis and other educational institutions for generations, and so we have to go back to that relay race. What work of justice and community has paved the way for you be part of the solution? What work will you do that enables the next student leaders to make more room for more people, where safety and equity are the norm?
There’s a quotation that speaks deeply to me, though the sourcing of it is pretty sketchy. It was introduced to me in seminary as being from the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text written by several rabbis, but it is impossible to locate the exact phrase. Regardless, I find the words very true. It is written: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
As we consider the immensity of the world before us, we must do our small part, and try not to be overwhelmed with the impulse to do too much. We have good ancestors, who have shown us the way. We can be good students, and we can be good citizens, and we can be good ancestors.