It was, undoubtedly, the best throw of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday. And no, the best throw of my life didn’t happen from the 40 yard line with a football in hand, or from centerfield with a baseball in hand, or from the baseline with a basketball in hand and needing a desperation heave. No, the best throw of my life happened from the back of a classroom with a paper airplane in hand.
It was the fall of my junior year of high school and I was in my 4th period US History class. Back in those days I had a constant need to entertain and on one particular day had a classic case of a teenaged kid needing to test the parameters of the student- teacher dynamic, and so I decided in the midst of another long lecture that we all needed a little comic relief. So, I made a paper airplane and intended to subtly let it fly across the front of the classroom where it would be guaranteed to be seen by everyone in the class. Well, it worked. I threw the airplane and as it flew along its trajectory toward the front of the class, I realized that it was shaping up to be the best throw of my life. It flew directly toward my teacher, grabbing the attention of everyone in the class, and then it landed. Perfectly. In my teacher’s hair. It was, undoubtedly, the best throw of my life. And it accomplished what I intended, providing some comic relief (I think my teacher even laughed) and sufficiently testing the teacher-student dynamic.
Today is the second of three consecutive weeks in which our gospel lesson comes from the “mission discourse” found in Matthew chapter 10. Throughout Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he bears witness to a God who is on the move. But Jesus shows us that God isn’t moving for the sake of moving, but is going to particular places and people. And in this mission discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples to be sent out as he has been sent out, to bear witness to the God who is on the move. Now this requires some instruction because how they will go matters.
In our lesson for today Jesus reminds the disciples of the teacher-student dynamic. It opens with these words: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Though Jesus reminds them of this dynamic so that they are not deceived into thinking they can follow in his way and avoid suffering, I think it warrants pausing to consider this teacher-student, this rabbi-disciple relationship and to consider the ways we as Christians—whether intentionally or unintentionally —tend to distort this dynamic by inverting it: we make ourselves the teacher and Jesus the student, our disciple.
In the incarnation, God enters into human existence deeply and completely, without reservation; Jesus is fully, unequivocally human. He doesn’t bypass the bad parts; he embraces humanity in our weaknesses, our sufferings, our pain. Jesus is like us. But in our eagerness to embrace Jesus’ likeness to us we tend to take it to places that distort Jesus’ identity and disrupt our discipleship in his way. We perform a distorted version of re-creation, recasting Jesus in our own image, making him our possession, and inviting him along on our journey. We need to remember that while Jesus is deeply like us he is also very much not like us.
We, as Christians, are following in the footsteps of a poor, first century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth who embodied—in life and death—God’s movement to bring liberation to all people. Jesus looks different than us; he speaks differently than us; he’s from a different time and place than us. While he is deeply like us, he is also alien to us; different in so many ways. Our eagerness to make Jesus our best buddy who is completely like us and our unwillingness to see him as different than us has grave implications for Christian life and ministry. Specifically, our inability to see Jesus as different than us, prevents us from following him into the places and to the people where he wants to lead us. And even when we by chance make it to those places and people, our inability to see Jesus as different than us keeps us from going there in the way that Jesus would have us to.
This can happen in countless ways in the life of the church and in our daily lives, but it has happened on a grand scale historically in ways that have changed the world in horrific ways. At the dawn of the colonial endeavors, white europeans set sail, fueled by a hunger for wealth and discovery. In those pursuits, they named and categorized the places and peoples they would, in turn, destroy for their own gain. In these moments, the construction of race was created; race as a social category used to determine the value of human life was built during these moments. And these colonial endeavors were not only fueled by a hunger for wealth and discovery, they were blessed and accompanied by the church that claimed Jesus as Lord. But, in order to bless and accompany these endeavors, the church had to forget about the ways in which Jesus was not like it; it had to forget about Jesus’ difference; it had to forget that Jesus was a poor, first century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth who embodied God’s movement to bring liberation to all. It had to recast Jesus in its own image, the image of whiteness, the image of colonial power. And with that image in its possession, it set sail around the world proclaiming the distorted gospel of this re- created version of Jesus in whose name lands would be pillaged and destroyed, in whose name people would be unjustly categorized, stolen, enslaved, raped, murdered all to satiate its insatiable hunger for more.
Racism, the unjust, inhumane categorization of people has been built into the system we inhabit; it is the air we breath, the waters of life we swim in, and the church’s distorted version of Jesus helped build this system and its silence has helped maintain it. The church in those historical moments, remade Jesus and asked him to be its disciple. It inverted the teacher-disciple relationship. “A disciple is not above the teacher,” says our lesson for today. What we need, is for Jesus—that poor, first century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth who embodied God’s movement toward liberation for all people—we need that Jesus to become for us, again, our teacher and us his disciples.
Well, while I certainly tested the parameters of the student-teacher dynamic with the teacher whose hair received my paper airplane, I’ll never forget the day she actually became my teacher, and it wasn’t the day I got my class schedule or the first day of classes. It didn’t actually happen until the spring of that school year and, coincidentally, it happened on the day she gave me the only “F” I’ve ever received.
That spring one of our main assignments was to complete a group project. So, about 8-10 of my guy friends decided we’d be a group and we would make a video for our project. The topic of the video was supposed to focus on the era of slavery in America. You can imagine that a group video project on slavery done by 10 teenaged, white, privileged boys in the south is not going to be a good thing. Well, like you might expect, we did next to nothing as a group to prepare for this project other than to plan to show up at someone’s house the Saturday before the Monday it was due and at that time we would throw it together. I didn’t create the narrative or write the script for this project. In fact, I got to the designated location later than others that Saturday morning, after the project was underway. I arrived to find that one of our friends had painted his face black. And the video that was made was not redeeming or even outspoken against the horrors of slavery; it made light of hundreds of years of that horror and made a mockery of the pain of our black sisters and brothers. I felt uneasy about it as the the videoing took place, and found myself pulling back and at times moving to the periphery of the scenes that gave me the greatest discomfort. I tried to take part in as little as possible, but I had agreed to this project and needed to get the grade on this assignment. I tried to find a way to participate but not fully participate; I tried to find away to move into the background. I mostly stood there, on the side, in silence. I stepped into a narrative I didn’t write or create, and I tried to do as little as possible so that I might not feel overly complicit in it. The moment we finished that day, I left as quickly as possible.
Monday rolled around and we turned in our video. When 4th period came we all sat down in class to present our projects. When it was our turn, the lights went out and the video started to play. There were snickers from some of us who made the video; for some of us there was a pit of uneasiness in our stomachs. After just a couple of minutes of the video playing, my teacher abruptly pushed the power button on the remote, stopping the video. She walked to the back of the classroom, turned on the lights, and then she walked to the podium. With tears in her eyes and anger in her voice, she simply said: “I am extremely disappointed. You all get an ‘F.’”
It was the “all” that shook me the most. She didn’t ask who wrote the script, who initiated the idea, who the video camera belonged to; we all got an “F” because we all had participated in the project, even those of us who felt uneasy about it and tried our best to watch in silence from the periphery. We were still there, standing silent, propping up that project. We all got an “F.”
While months before that moment I had tested the student-teacher dynamic, she became my teacher that day because she—through her tears and anger—opened me up to see more clearly who I was and somehow within that she extended an invitation to change.
To be a disciple is to be transformed, to change, and to give oneself to a lifetime of little changes that make us more and more into the likeness of the teacher.
When it comes to the racism—which is embedded in every structure, every nook and cranny of our society—we can all say that it is a story we didn’t create, that it isn’t a script we wrote. But it’s a story we’ve stepped into, and while we may try to distance ourselves by standing silently on the periphery, by not acting out the explicitly troubling scenes, it’s a story we have inhabited and our presence either upholds it or, if we choose another way, can dismantle it.
By grace, we have been invited by Jesus—that poor, first century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth who embodied God’s movement toward liberation for all—we’ve been invited by that Jesus to inhabit a different story, to be grafted into a different way of being in this world. To live into that story is the path of discipleship, which is to give ourselves to a lifetime of change. And while it’s a gift, it comes with a cost, as both of our New Testament lessons show us. Our initiation into this story is marked by baptism, which is a kind of death to one way of being and birth into a new way. And, as Jesus tells his disciples, to be like him—the teacher—requires that we give it everything, that we pick up our cross and follow.
“A disciple is not above the teacher...it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” As we go along this way, we have to refuse to invert that relationship, resisting the urge to make Jesus our disciple. We not only have to decide to be disciples but we must daily choose to stay disciples.