Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Take up your cross and follow me.

Sermon September 13, 2015

Today, our lectionary has put us in the Gospel of Mark.  Today’s reading is a turning point in the Gospel of Mark.  Remember last week, we talked about how in Chapter 7, Mark is trying to convince his community that Jesus is more than a magician or a faith healer.  He’s emphasizing that Jesus is God, but hasn’t yet come out and said it.    Well here in Chapter 8, we get the revelation, Jesus, the Christ, is the Messiah.

But today I find myself not only reflecting on the Gospel, but it is September 13th—two days after the anniversary of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  We are remembering that day, praying with those who died and those who mourn.   The anniversary of 9/11 causes us to reflect on what those events mean for us, what we have learned from them, whether the world is safer today than it was then, whether there is a new hope that can be nurtured from those events.
And tomorrow is Holy Cross Day.  A day set aside for veneration of the Cross and celebration of Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross.

So today, I am reflecting on all three things—the anniversary of 9/11, the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah in the Gospel of Mark and the celebration of Holy Cross Day.

Beginning with the Gospel,  Jesus starts by asking, who does the public say I am, then asks Peter, who do you say I am?  Peter knows the right answer—you are the Messiah.  But typical of the clueless disciples, he doesn’t seem to know is what that means. 

So Jesus begins to explain to him—it means suffering and death and resurrection after three days.  Peter who got the answer right “You are the Messiah” when he hears about the crucifixion and resurrection, denies Jesus, rebukes him.  He’s still looking for a different kind of power.  He’s still expecting a King with power over the people.  He is not ready to accept a suffering servant as God.
But what seems most important about this passage is that Jesus immediately links this revelation about his identity with a call to follow him.  Discipleship means not just declaring that Jesus the Christ is the Messiah, it means suffering with him, dying with him, giving up this life for God. 

There is a danger in reading this passage that we might conclude that suffering is inherently holy.  Does God want us to suffer oppression and rejection?  Does God want us to die senseless deaths?  No, Jesus is talking about a very particular kind of suffering—this is suffering because he has rejected the social norms, he has defied the authorities, he has spoken out and associated with the unclean, he has offered healing and teaching that raises up the lowly and challenges the powers that be.  Suffering at the hands of authorities because you have chosen this radical path of speaking out, challenging, healing.  Giving up your life in the service of loving your neighbor.  This is holy sacrifice. 

I have been praying a lot this weekend about 9/11 this tragedy and the aftermath.  I am praying about the anger, hatred that provoked the attack and the sometimes racist response of people who blamed all followers of Islam.  I am praying about the people who saved others in the midst of the collapsing towers, those rescue workers who lost their lives trying to save people from the burning rubble.  I pray with the people who offered relief to victims and their families and those who offered prayer when all of us suffered this trauma.

Simultaneous with those prayers, I began working on our Gospel reading for today.   I found it helpful to hold this Gospel reading up alongside the events of 9/11 as a way to ask where was God in those events, and where are we as disciples in relation to that senseless killing and the years that have followed.

On 9/11 we experienced a senseless killing of 2996 people.  It was an act of violent terrorism, a hatred of the United States, expressed by the destruction of the World Trade Center Tower and the Pentagon, the people who died on the planes and the hijackers themselves.

The hijackers, members of Al Queda and followers of Osama Bin Laden, believed that they were engaged in a holy war, a fatwah against the United States.  But Osama Bin Laden used power, the most powerful weapons of heavily fueled airplanes to kill God’s people.  This attack was about human power not about God’s reign.  Bin Laden sought power over people,  not the power to reconcile people to God.  Was Bin Laden’s mistake, like Peter’s confusion?  In our Gospel reading, Peter couldn’t accept a Messiah who was going to suffer and die. Peter thought that being the Messiah meant having power here on earth.  But Jesus tells us, no this power over people—the power to kill innocent people, the power to create fear in society—this is not God.  Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus has harsh words,  “Get behind me Satan.”  I hear Jesus saying these words to Bin Laden.  This kind of power is evil.  “You are seeing your mind on human things, not on divine things.”  And after the 9/11 attacks, all of us, all over the world recognized this truth.  We condemned the attacks as the evil that they were—Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of all faiths and humanists together renounced this evil.  It was terrorism, not a holy act.

When we think back to those attacks and see the evil that perpetrated them, we can also see true disciples--firefighters and emergency personnel, doctors and nurses, emergency shelter workers, news crews and ordinary people all over the world who offered support and prayer.  These were the people who responded with compassion.  In some cases putting their lives at risk to help others. 

Jesus’s words resonate:  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” 

So we hold those people who cared, who helped, who prayed during and after the 9/11 attacks.  We remember those who worked tirelessly, trying to save people in the rubble, trying to locate bodies,  helping families identify the people they loved who were lost in the attack.  There were the 411 emergency workers who gave up their lives.  These were the disciples, not perfect people, but people who acted as followers, who knew that this was moment when being a servant, helping those in need was the most important thing. 

In those acts of discipleship, we can feel the hope that our Gospel speaks of.  There is hope in joining Jesus—taking up our cross and following him to death and resurrection.  The symbol of this hope is the Holy Cross.

I have posted on our website a History Channel video about 9/11.  One of the emergency workers, looking for bodies in the rubble, found a cross, a cross made of I-beams.  It was standing in the rubble.  And the emergency worker who found it, describes how he felt when he saw it.  The cross gave him hope, the cross pointed to God’s presence in the rubble.  The cross pointed to the suffering and death, but it provided also a resurrection hope.  Out of this rubble, out of these senseless deaths grows an awareness of God’s love for us and our shared commitment to loving one another. 

The cross symbolizes the redeeming power of Christ’s death.  It is not a celebration of his suffering, but a celebration of his resurrection, his overcoming death for us.  This is a celebration of the new life in God that we are baptized into.  This is the life that Jesus promises us, the new life that we obtain through Christ.  By giving up our earthly life, and acting as disciples, following Jesus even unto death—this is how we obtain the eternal life that is promised by God.

Before I conclude today,  I want to bring in the letter of James.  Our epistle reminds us that the tongue is a powerful member—it has the power to both curse and bless.  We are called to discipleship using our tongues to bless what God has made holy, lifting up all of God’s creatures and denying the human constructs, the powerful who are focused on material gains and the pleasures of this life.  As we remember 9/11, it is up to us to use our tongues to name the evil, the terrorists who believed that their power to kill and create fear was God’s power.   These attackers were not followers of God, they were followers of a human desire for power. 

Let us use our tongues to proclaim true discipleship—a radical discipleship that puts following our God, Jesus our teacher and our savior, ahead of life itself.  This is the work that we are called to do.  We must name the hope and goodness of the people who serve, (like all who served in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks) we must deny the media reports that suggest that material things that we can acquire in this life are more important than God’s love for us and our love for others.
And finally, let us proclaim the resurrection hope of the Cross, where there is suffering and death, let us point to the redeeming love of Jesus Christ who died for us so that we might have eternal life.  Where there is hopelessness, let us name the hope. 


As we pray today, let us accept the grace of God that provided us with this life, naming God, knowing God and giving thanks.  “You are the Messiah!”   Let us respond to this gift of life as disciples “let us deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him”  loving our neighbors as ourselves, serving others and forsaking this life so that we might have the life that God has promised us—when the Son of Man “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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