Sermon – Feb 25, 2024   Mark 8:31-38 Take Up Your Cross         Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever found yourself so completely up a creek that all you can do is laugh? When I was serving on a charge in North Queens, I had a pastoral visit to make one snowy Saturday afternoon. And I got lost. Took the wrong turn off the main road. Deep into the woods, and really not where I was supposed to be going.

Which would have been okay, if I could have turned around. But on a one-lane gravel road in the middle of the woods? There is not really anywhere TO turn around. So I had to keep going. And going. And going. I’m now unredeemably late for my pastoral visit, and I still can’t turn around. Until FINALLY I came around a corner and there was a widening in the road. So I pulled the car to the right to accomplish the big 180. 

Only to discover that the road hadn’t actually widened and it just looked that way because of the all the snow. And so I drove very gently off the road and straight down. Into the ditch. 

So now I’m lost in the middle of the woods, this is long before cell phones, there’s no house for miles, I’m late for my pastoral visit, and now my car is stuck in a ditch, which it looks like I’ve driven into ON PURPOSE. I mean really. All you can do is laugh. So I put a note in the car that said “I belong to the United Minister” and I started walking back.

Well, I was lucky. Turned out there WAS a house hidden way back there, and I hadn’t been walking very long before the owner of that house came along in his tractor. He and his girlfriend had seen the car, they’d seen my footprints walking back along the road, and they’d come to rescue me. Really nice guy. Took me back up to his place way out in the woods, and his girlfriend gave me a cup of tea, and meanwhile he hauled my car out of the ditch with his tractor, and I was good to go. 

Isn’t that a heartwarming ending to my story? Well, it does have an appendix. Turned out that my hero who rescued me? The local bootlegger. Willing provider to all and sundry of whatever illegal homegrown booze and who knows what else that they might desire. Who thoroughly enjoyed telling everyone in town that he’d “had the United Minister up to tea last Saturday”. And you should have seen some of their faces! It was seriously like they couldn’t believe I’d survived. And meanwhile he was perfectly nice and really super helpful.

But you know… Sometimes we think we know someone -- Oooo he’s a bootlegger, he’s a dealer, he’s a criminal -- we think we know what they’re like, how they’ll act, what they’ll say. And we’re wrong. 

I found myself thinking about my Bootlegging Who knows what-Dealing Hero this week as I contemplated the gospel reading from Mark that we heard this morning. 

Because if there was ever a moment in the gospel stories in which people betray all the assumptions they have about Jesus, and who he fundamentally IS and what his purpose is, and then they find out that they’re really really WRONG? This is that moment.

Though initially, at least, it doesn’t seem like it. Because when Jesus first floats the question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”, and they tell him some people think he’s John the Baptist returned, or maybe the prophet Elijah returned… 

When he then ups the ante with devastating directness, “And who do YOU say that I am?”… At first it looks like it’s Peter’s moment of triumph.

Because Peter gets it right. Unlike all those misguided masses who don’t really KNOW Jesus – think he’s another John the Baptist or another Elijah – Peter gets it right. Peter knows who he is.

“You are the Messiah,” he says to Jesus. And he KNOWS he’s right, and so do we, because Jesus immediately warns him to keep it quiet for the time being.

Which may seem a little odd, but Jesus’ plan seems to be to allow the truth to unfold for people instead of just hitting them with it, but Peter doesn’t care anyway because the only thing that matters is that he was RIGHT. 

Not only is Jesus the Messiah, but he, Peter, has recognized him, he’s in the know, he’s on the right side of history, and when the great Messianic battle to crush the forces of evil and oppression happens? He, Peter, is TOTALLY going to be on the winning side.

This just might be the best day ever. Except it turns out he’s wrong. Not that Jesus is the Messiah – that much it appears he got right. But all the assumptions he has about what that means, about who a Messiah fundamentally IS and what his purpose is?

Totally and utterly wrong. SO wrong, in fact, that instead of just the usual weary sigh and “Oh ye of little faith, let me tell you a parable that will make you understand…”, Jesus actually turns on Peter for it, and pretty much yells at him.

Obviously for Jesus this is kind of a sore point. Which is understandable, it really is, because even if none of the rest of the disciples has actually come out and SAID it out loud the way Peter just did, there HAVE been hints that the rest of them are also coming to believe that Jesus is the Messiah – 

And that they too are assuming, and quietly awaiting with glee, that this means that at some point he’s going to swing into Super Messiah Battle Action against everything that’s wrong in the world.

Just consider, as one example, James and John wasting an entire afternoon arguing over which one of them’s going to have the bigger throne in the Heavenly Glory to Come, after Jesus the Messiah has triumphed in the great Messianic Battle. They’re harbouring these assumptions, the disciples are. They’re harbouring these hopes.

And it’s obviously really become a sore point for Jesus – he’s really hit the wall it. With all these harboured hopes and assumptions about what it means to be the Messiah, what he’s like, why he’s there, and what it’s all about.

And so when Peter gives him the opportunity? Opens the door, with his confident declaration ‘You are the Messiah’, for a big serious rant about what that actually means? Jesus seizes that opportunity. And poor old Peter is, to put it gently, no longer having the best day ever.

Because recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, it would appear, the one sent to draw humanity back toward God’s goodness and grace, doesn’t mean anything like all those assumptions about crushing Messianic battles. 

Recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the one sent to draw humanity back toward God’s goodness and grace, is instead, it would appear, about learning that the plan… is pretty much the absolute opposite. 

Because when Jesus turns on Peter, tells his followers that following HIM as the Messiah is going to mean being willing to take up a cross, that’s what he means. 

Because a ‘cross’ isn’t a burden to be borne. We often think of that way, with that phrase about ‘this is the cross I bear’ evoking the notion of a hardship or a trial or a suffering we’ve not asked for and we don’t want but we can’t escape and so we bear it, God being our helper.

And there’s nothing wrong with that notion – it absolutely reflects the image we have of Jesus bent over and broken, being forced to carry his cross step by exhausted step through the roads of Jerusalem to the place of his crucifixion. So there’s nothing wrong with that notion of ‘the cross I bear’. 

It’s just not what Jesus is talking about here. Because in the first century Roman Empire, the cross wasn’t a burden to be borne. It was the death sentence for crimes against the state. For political uprising and threats to public order and challenging the status quo.

It’s the death sentence that Jesus wants Peter and the disciples to realize they’ll need to be up for, if they want to follow him on his way. Because his way as the Messiah – it IS a political uprising and a threat to public order and a challenge to the status quo – it IS an overturning of entrenched injustice and the crushing of the poor and the contemptuous demeaning of the weak and vulnerable – it IS about revolution into a new realm in which we recognize one another as simply worthy of fullness of life by virtue of being human, and children of God –

It's just not going to happen with Super Messiah Battle action. Not by a long shot and not even close. 

It’s not going to be with ham-fisted power, but instead with a put-others-first vulnerability.
And not with repaying an eye for an eye, but instead with ceasefire, and deliberate disarmament, and standing down, and saying enough. 
With an endless number of willingnesses to forgive and move on. 
With giving the thief who takes your shirt, your jacket also. 
With daring only to embody non-violence and openness and generous love.

And worst of all maybe, when the powers that be come for you and say that your non-violence and your put-others-first vulnerability is starting to have a little too much influence? With not fighting back even if they imprison you. Even if they threaten to take your life. Even when they do.

It is crazy, take up your cross. It is unhinged, according to every rational human instinct for security and survival that is hard-wired into our DNA. It was then and it is now. Because when we read it, all these centuries later and try to figure out how we’re supposed to deal with it? It can kind of feel like following the path of Jesus means winding up so far up a creek that the only thing we can do is laugh. Certainly that seems to be how Peter reacts to it.

Because what do we even DO with that, take up your cross? We can recognize its import in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis, or Archbishop Romero, martyred by militants in El Salvador, or Alexei Navalny, martyred in Russia – but for those of whose personal reach extends roughly as far as the state of the sidewalks will allow on any given day, what on earth is it meant to mean for us? 

In some ways, the same. Because what ‘take up your cross’ is really about is perspective. It’s about deciding what we most value, in our life. It’s locating the quality of our life in how focussed on others, how vulnerable, how forgiving, how non-violent, AND how wilfully contrary to the values of smash-and-grab empire it is.

Because take up your cross inherently acknowledges that a life that really has worth, in the sense of reflecting the goodness and grace of God, is a life that’s that risky. Maybe not literally risky in the sense that it puts us in physical danger, though sometimes it can be, but risky in the sense that it can really annoy people. 

Because the quality of living that Jesus is inviting us into, it doesn’t fit in. It claims a whole different set of values. It doesn’t accept profit before people, or violence repaying violence, or everyone for himself, or nevermind the environment - we have to think about the economy. When Jesus says take up your cross, the kind of living he wants us to share is really annoying. It just will not go along with the status quo, and it gets on the world’s last nerve just by its very existence. It’s that risky.

But you know what it also does? It changes things. Sometimes way more slowly than we’d like, but the arc of history does keep bending ever closer to justice, to the goodness and grace of God. And that hasn’t only been because of the names we know, the great leaders, too many of whom wound up in fact forfeiting the quantity of their days in favour of the courage of choosing to live with the quality Jesus showed us. It’s also been because of countless others whose names we don’t know, but who managed in their own sphere of influence to choose the same thing.

So take up your cross, it’s a wildly uncomfortable teaching. It really is, there’s no getting around it. It’s an invitation but it does carry a warning. It does mean letting go of the very human impulse to do what’s easy or what’s comfortable instead of doing what’s right, even if annoys, even if it aggravates, even if it puts us at risk, even all the way up to a willingness to forfeit quantity of days in favour of quality. 

The warning is real. But so is the invitation. This will give our life the fulness of the worth that it can have in the grand scheme of humanity bending closer to God. It won’t make us comfortable. It may sometimes make things distinctly UNcomfortable. But we only have one life. Don’t we want it to be worthwhile? Thanks be to God, who travels with us on the way and even when we find ourselves up a creek. Amen.