Chicken Necks and Lifting Weights: God’s Radical Kingdom
“Chicken Necks and Lifting Weights: God’s Radical Kingdom” Psalm 62: 5-12
Rev. Kate Foster
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Sunday, January 24, 2021
My senior year of high school, with one more P.E. requirement to fulfill for graduation, there was only one option that fit with my academic schedule: weightlifting. With no other choice, I registered for the class, having never set foot in the weight room of the large public high school I attended in Chapel Hill, NC. Fearing the class would be made up of me and the entire football team, I was relieved to find out on the first day of class that there were a few other victims of scheduling issues and graduation requirements.
I was joined in that class by the most random and diverse group I had spent time with in high school:
- a girl who had left her home in Texas at the age of 16, moved to North Carolina, and was working as a waitress at night to support herself, while living in a small apartment above a meat market
- a boy who was a gifted and fierce activist for black power – passionate and smart and committed to fighting for racial equity in a school that marginalized students of color
- a girl whose family had been unable to escape the cycle of poverty; who lived in a trailer park not far from where I grew up, who was praying that her near-failing grades would not keep her from graduating
- and me – the middle child of a physician and an early childhood educator; upper middle class, white and privileged.Left to fend for ourselves in a class full of football players, the four of us spent the semester doing our best to get through this very different and kind of awkward class.Now, looking back, I am struck by the fact that I remember this one class so clearly. I don’t have the best memory – but this one class stands out. Now, I can see that it has stuck in my mind because it was so different from all the others. This class, because of scheduling forces beyond our control, had thrown us together across lines that people just didn’t cross. Lines of academic tracking, of economic class, and of race.In today’s Psalm, the writer uses an image of balances, or scales: “Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;they are together lighter than breath.” (v. 9)
Scales were a way to measure out goods, and were used to determine value. The more something weighed, the more it was worth, so using the psalmist’s image, you would expect that someone with high status would carry more weight, and someone with low status would carry little to no weight. But the psalmist suggests that neither high nor low status carries any weight at all in God’s realm – that whether you are the child of a physician or you are living in a trailer park; in God’s realm, your status doesn’t have any weight at all.
Which is not what most of us have experienced in the world as we know it. In that disparate group in the weightlifting class – we knew our place in the status hierarchy of high school. We knew we did not belong in the football team’s training room; and we knew that we had never met before, even though we had been at the same school – the only high school in town – since 10th grade. None of us had been assigned the same weight on the scales that determine your value in high school.
The Psalmist’s claim that status bears no weight does not make sense in most of our lived experiences.
But it’s a message that repeats throughout scripture, one that Jesus proclaims again in today’s story from Mark. His invitation to Simon and Andrew, and to James and John, to “Follow me and I will make you fishers for people” (v. 17) often is understood to be a mandate for evangelism – for bringing more people into the Christian faith.
But this passage is not a call to church growth. Jesus is quoting the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Amos, who used the image of fishing and a fishhook to call out those who had power and status and were using it to take advantage of the poor and the marginalized.1
So when Jesus asks Simon and Andrew and James and John to follow him – and promises to make them fishers of people – he is doing something much more radical than it first appears. He is inviting these young people to join him in challenging norms that give more weight to people of higher status, challenging the social structures that place less value on people of lower status. He is asking them to join him on a wild and risky project to overturn and subvert power and privilege.
Remarkably, these young fishermen dropped their nets, left their families and their livelihoods, and joined him for a crash course in prophetic ministry that would require them to re-frame their understanding of the social order. Jesus had invited them to join him in ushering in God’s radical agenda to value all people, no matter their status.
This past week was historic, as so many weeks have been this year. But this week made history not primarily for the Covid death toll, nor for corruption, nor for insurrection, all of which of course have been historic in recent months. This week made history because we witnessed the
1 Myers, Ched, Binding the Strongman, accessed at https://martinnewellcp.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/binding- the-strongman-abridged-by-ched-myers-with-forward-by-daniel-berrigan.pdf (Jer 16:16, Ez 29:4 and Am 4:2)
inauguration of the first woman – the first African-American – the first Asian-American – to the office of Vice President. That was groundbreaking – because for most of our country’s history, women, and people of color, and people of non-European ethnic backgrounds have not had the status to be elected to national office.
Thankfully, the gains in status for women, and for people of color, are tipping the scales that historically have bent toward white people and men.
But the insurrection that led to the storming of our Capitol building happened just 2 weeks before the inauguration, and the anger and fear that fueled it has not gone away.
In a December op-ed in the New York Times, Columbia University journalism professor Thomas B. Edsall wrote about how the loss of status many Americans are experiencing – or fear they will experience – is playing out in American politics, on both the right and the left. He wrote:
“Much of the discontent fueling support for radical parties is rooted in feelings of social marginalization — namely, in the sense some people have that they have been pushed to the fringes of their national community and deprived of the roles and respect normally accorded full members of it.”2
In this op-ed, Thomas Edsall put his finger on something I think we have to pay attention to. In the world as we know it, the scales that measure status always have to tip toward one group or another. In the world as we know it, when one person or one group gains status, the other side of the scale has to go down. When one group gains status, another must lose it.
Jesus’ radical project of upending the social order still has some work to do. And for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, it will require some re-framing of the world as we know it – it will require a turning away from the scales that have always determined a person’s value, and toward the Psalmist’s image where status has no weight at all.
Can we even imagine this world?
This is the world Jesus invites us to join him in creating. A world where every person has value – every single person – no matter which political party they belong to, where they were born, what language they speak, what the color of their skin is, or how much money they earn. Can we imagine a world like that?
Every so often, God gifts us with a glimpse of that world, a breaking in of the kingdom that reminds us that it is possible.
2 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/opinion/trump-social-status- resentment.html?referringSource=articleShare
I saw it once on McElderry Street in East Baltimore, when The Center was hosting a youth group from Northern Virginia for a mission week. This upper middle class, privileged group from one of the most academically competitive school districts in the country was serving all week with Amazing Grace Lutheran Church. They were supporting church and community leaders in their efforts to alleviate food insecurity in the neighborhood – one of the city’s poorest and with one of the highest homicide rates.
At one point in the week, two women from the church sat down in the fellowship hall to take a break. They pulled out a to-go container of food they had brought, and as they opened it, two teenage boys became very interested. Working all day, those boys had worked up an appetite, and you could see from their interest that they were hungry. “Would you like some of our chicken necks?” one of the women asked them. They held out the container to the boys, who reluctantly reached for a taste. They gobbled them up, and even took seconds, as the women chuckled at this awkward but beautiful shared feast.
God’s Kindom was there, in that Styrofoam container of chicken necks, in the hungry mouths of some white teenage boys, and in the laughter they shared with some black women whose generosity made room for something holy.
And I saw a glimpse of God’s kingdom in that weightlifting room in high school, where four strangers spent the semester laughing at our cluelessness about the weight equipment, halfheartedly working on our strength, and sharing stories about our lives.
Mark’s gospel tells us that when Jesus invited his first disciples to join him in the radical project of overturning structures of power and privilege, they dropped their nets and immediately went with him.
It’s the same call Jesus issues to each of us. What are we willing to drop to join in?