Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sermon for April 17, 2014 / Maundy Thursday

The Path of Least Resistance: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

If you want to make a difference in society, here’s what to do: step off that path of least resistance. It’s that simple. And it’s that difficult. Stop following the crowd. Stop doing what the dominant culture says you should do. Don’t let fear keep you in place. Face the pain that will come when society tries to stuff you back into its mold. If you want to make a difference in society, step off that path of least resistance.

Let me give you an example, as written about by sociologist Allan Johnson. In 1960, most public accommodations were racially segregated throughout the U.S. South. One day, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four young African-American college students walked into a Woolworth’s lunch counter and bought school supplies for their first term in college and then sat down at the lunch counter and asked for menus. The waitress, however, refused to serve them. She told them to leave, saying, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

They were furious at being treated this way. They were from Northern cities where racism and segregation were not so blatant. They argued among themselves about what to do. Finally they decided to return to the lunch counter and refuse to leave until they were served like everyone else. As they sat on the stools that day, they were threatened, verbally abused, and physically pushed and shoved. They had food and drink thrown on them, yet they refused to leave. Finally, the manager announced that the lunch counter was closed. As the students rose to leave, they said they’d be back tomorrow. They returned the next day, along with others who had heard of their sit-in. They came back the day after that with more people. And again the day after that with even more people. They kept coming back until every seat was occupied by a person of color, willing to defy the unconcealed racial segregation that had been a trademark of Southern White culture for hundreds of years.

Within a matter of weeks, news of what happened in Greensboro spread. Similar sit-ins occurred across North Carolina and then, within a few months, throughout the South in all kinds of public accommodations. The eventual result was an end to this form of segregation.

Maybe you remember that event. Allan Johnson suggests that we notice what these young protesters did and did not do. They did not try to change anyone’s mind. They did not speak, much less argue, with anyone. They did not hand out written statements. They knew that every social system organizes through the participation of individuals. And any individual in any system has the potential to change how the system works. How? By stepping off the path of least resistance. When a person changes how he or she participates in the system, that person can begin to transform how the system shapes people’s experiences and behaviors. In other words, changing the way a system works is far more powerful – and potentially more dangerous –than trying to change any particular individual, one at a time.

When we step off the paths of least resistance, we can change the structures. Just by sitting at a lunch counter, the Greensboro Four changed the essence of segregation by rearranging the physical space. They challenged the distribution of power that kept segregation in place as the cornerstone of white privilege. The act of stepping off the path of least resistance created consequences that rippled out from that small lunch counter to much larger systems.

This kind of interplay both between systems and the people who participate in them is how social life happens. When someone steps off the path of least resistance, we pay attention. We make choices and decisions. We support or oppose. We choose to ignore it or we choose to show compassion.

Let’s use another example from our biblical stories. You might remember the story about the Good Samaritan. He literally steps off the path of least resistance to show compassion to a wounded traveler. The wounded man’s fellow citizens wouldn’t step off the path to help. The religious leaders of the day wouldn’t do it. Only the least likely character in the story, a despised, un-kosher Samaritan, steps off the path to help. When the original listeners heard that story, they paid attention. They selected their allegiance. They knew that Luke, the Gospel writer, wasn’t just talking about how we treat individuals. He also offered a commentary on the corruption of a religious system that valued right belief over right actions.

A system affects how we think, how we feel, and how behave as participants. That’s why I don’t like to play games like Monopoly or Risk anymore. I don’t like how I behave when I’m part of what I'm going to call the"Monopoly/Risk Domination System." When I play these board games, I try to win, even against children. Usually, when I do something to make my kids cry, I feel bad – unless it’s a game of Monopoly or Risk. Crying is part of the game system. I can’t resist feeling good about crushing my opponents. Then I feel bad about feeling good about crushing my opponents. Why do I act and feel this way? I know I do not have a greedy, mercenary personality in any other social situation.

When I participate in the Monopoly/Risk Domination System, greedy behavior is the path of least resistance. It’s what I’m supposed to do if I want to belong, because everyone else is encouraged to act the same way. So when I play the game, I go by its rules and pursue the values it promotes. The rules of these games have authority over the people who play them. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Try changing the rules of Monopoly so that all players get to share the wealth. Everyone can pool their rent money, and whenever a player lands on free parking, that player gets a share of the pot. Just try it and see what happens. One time, during a game of Risk, I suggested we change the scenario. Instead of taking over territory through warfare, I said, “Hey, let’s imagine these armies represent the power of love to overtake the world. Instead of armies, these will be spiritual forces for good.” I was laughed out of the room. Why? In the context of the game, dominance is the path of least resistance. When we step off the path of least resistance, we change the structure. 

Tonight, when we rehearse our most holy of stories, we will experience Jesus stepping off the path of least resistance.

Jesus prays in the Garden as his closest followers sleep. They will fail to keep their vigil. They will leave Jesus alone in his soul-agony. Jesus will pray that the cup of suffering might be taken away. We realize that at any moment, Jesus can walk away. He can say sorry for being a political rabble-rouser and probably keep his life. Instead, Jesus will take another step off the path of least resistance.

Jesus will go to the cross. Not with a fight. Not with weapons. Not with retaliatory violence. Jesus will step off the path of least resistance, which, ironically, will mean going willingly to death on the cross.

Tonight, we will also hear stories of those who follow the path of least resistance. Peter will follow the path of least resistance when, in fear, he denies Jesus Christ three times. He will realize that if he admits to being a follower of Jesus, he will be killed, too.

Rather than ruin his political career, Pontius Pilate will follow the path of least resistance when he washes his hands, both symbolically and literally, of Jesus’ fate and allows an angry mob to crucify him.

We are always participating in something larger than ourselves. If we want to understand how to transform our lives as communities, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it. There is no moment of greater awareness for anyone than when one steps off the path of least resistance.

As we listen, as we remember, as we approach the stories of Jesus dying because of human sin, perhaps we will think of the easy paths we follow without question, and the ways we might take different paths in order to change unjust systems.

How can we change direction on the path of retributive violence, and what might happen when we do?

Are we willing to walk off narrow paths of prejudice and intolerance? What might the consequences be?

Might we veer off the path of least resistance to befriend the lonely?
To give a drink to the suffering?
To stay awake with those in agony?
To pray with those who don’t know how to go on?

Can we step off the path of least resistance to help carry the crosses of those who are weak?
To affirm our friendships when it will mean certain discrimination?

Can we step off the path of least resistance to offer a word of hope – to insist that everyone belongs at the lunch counter?
That people in ditches are to be cared for and not ignored?
That love can triumph over domination?
That suffering does not save anyone?

Because when we step off the paths off least resistance, we can change the structures.  And that’s when some real transformation can begin to flourish.


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