WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, June 16, we worship on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (the time after Pentecost).  Jesus highlights the mysterious horticulture of the kingdom of God, in which we can never underestimate the magnitude of what can be done with something small.  We welcome Pastor Arden Krych, who will preach and preside. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship:https://www.youtube.com/live/BVwInjrcBG0?si=931YpLrC1LksyemF

Mark 8:31-38

February 25, 2024

I’ve been fascinated by improv comedy for a long time.  I’m amazed by these people who can think and act so quickly in response to what their fellow improvisers do and what audience members shout out as suggestions.  “Ice cream…koala bear…chewing gum!”  And then they make something hilarious out of that.

Long-time improviser Billy Merritt says there are three different types of improvisers.  He calls them pirates, robots, and ninjas.  Ninjas do small, subtle things to move the scene along.  Robots are the logical ones who often have to bring the scene back to some kind of reality.  The pirates are fearless and unpredictable, the ones who will go for broke to get a scene going, the ones who are willing to fail completely.  When we think about improv, we usually imagine the pirates.  Think about John Belushi, for example.  Or Chris Farley.

Pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana does improv workshops for church groups, and she’ll often ask, “Who was Jesus’ best pirate?”  Any guesses about whose name comes up most often?   Peter.  Peter of the big swings and the sometimes misses.  Consider that on Jesus’ last night with his disciples, when Jesus washes their feet, Peter at first refuses, but when Jesus chastises him, suddenly Peter says, “Well, OK, then, wash my whole body!”  It’s all or nothing with Peter. And who is it that jumps out of the boat and tries to walk on water when he sees Jesus doing it?  Yep.  That’s Peter.

Think back a couple of weeks to the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus is shining brightly up on the mountain, and Elijah and Moses are hanging out there, even though those two are supposed to be long-dead.  Peter offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Elijah, and Moses can live on the mountaintop.  That’s a definite pirate move – bold, if misguided.

Today’s gospel happens just before the Transfiguration, and it’s the first time that Jesus has been clear with his disciples about where his journey is headed. He tells them “quite openly” that he will suffer, that he will be condemned by the religious and political leaders, and that he will be killed.  He also mentions that after three days he will rise again, but perhaps that detail was more than anyone could comprehend in the moment.

In response to this announcement from Jesus, Peter goes full-on pirate mode.  He refuses to accept that Jesus is telling the truth.  He rebukes Jesus, rejecting this version of the story completely.

And Jesus responds harshly.  He says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

That must have hurt.  Peter is understandably confused.  Among Jews of the first century, the prevailing view was that the messiah would come to assure military victory over the Roman empire and would restore the monarchy of King David, a time centuries earlier when things were more hopeful for the Jewish people.  It makes no sense to Peter that the messiah would face suffering, much less be put to death.

But Jesus is a different kind of messiah, one for whom suffering is part of the story.  And not just suffering on the cross, but suffering alongside anyone who is suffering – the hungry, the rejected, the sick, the grieving, the hopeless, and the scorned. Jesus knows that the difficult road he must travel is ultimately part of God’s plan to redeem the world.  Jesus will die, yes.  But he will also defeat death.

Peter is not alone in being baffled by the wildness of God’s vision for God’s family.  For another response of surprise in the face of God’s promises, we go back to the story of Abram/Abraham.  At the time that God promises Abram both a name change and a bajillion descendants, Abram has exactly one child.  The mother of that child is the slave woman Hagar, a circumstance that has produced all kinds of drama in his household.  So, as with Peter, we can sympathize with Abraham’s difficulty in believing God’s vision.  It seemed impossible that God would make Abraham the ancestor of multitudes, including kings.

Abraham laughs in response to this news, and who can blame him?  In addition to other obvious challenges, he’s 99 years old.  As Paul puts it so tactfully in his letter to the Romans, Abraham “was already as good as dead.” 

Neither Peter nor Abraham knows what to do with the strange truth of God’s story.  They are putting their minds on human things more than divine things.  Eventually they both figure it out.  Abraham faithfully carries out what God tells him, and he does become the ancestor of many nations.  And Peter becomes a rock on which the church is built, an important leader of the early church.  Their pathways of faith do not have to be perfect in order to prosper.

Your pathway of faith doesn’t have to be perfect either.  Lent is a good time for reckoning with how we focus on human things more than divine things.  That hearkens back to last week’s story of temptation.  What are those things for each of us that keep us distracted or discouraged or despairing – sometimes to the point that we forget about God altogether?

Jesus is clear that focusing on divine things is not always easy.  And yet he summons us to take up the cross, which means that he summons us to suffer alongside those who are suffering – the hungry, the rejected, the sick, the grieving, the hopeless, and the scorned.  To sit in those places can be hard.  It’s not our first impulse most of the time.  Like Abraham, we can sometimes choose awkward laughter instead.  Like Peter, we would prefer to look away from the suffering.

But we have a God who, in Paul’s words, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  God can do that.  God can create something about of nothing and can bring new life where there has been only death.  God can be that source of joy and hope and love.

To take up the cross does not mean that God wants us to suffer or that God causes us to suffer.  It doesn’t mean that God intends for us to be on the receiving end of abuse or to be martyrs to someone else’s brokenness.

To take up the cross does mean that we are willing to get close to pain – the pain of our families, the pain of our neighbors, the pain of the world.  It means we commit ourselves to doing all we can to relieve pain where it exists – and to interrupt whatever is causing that pain, even when that means making sacrifices.  And when there is no relief to be found, we are willing to sit in that pain with others to bear witness to its reality.

There’s an exchange in the musical Hamilton that gets at this a little bit.  George Washington says to the young, brash, itching-for-a-fight Alexander Hamilton:

It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger

I was just like you when I was younger

Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?

Dyin’ is easy, young man.  Living is harder.

Dying is easy.  Living is harder. As we move through Lent, may we hold fast to the promises of the One who gives life to the dead.  May we focus on holy things more than human things.  May we deny ourselves and take up the cross.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

Sources

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Chapter 14, “Be a Pirate, a Robot, or a Ninja,” pp. 89-95.

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-28-lent-2b-mark-831-38
https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/2/20/cross-purposes-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-2

Diana Butler Bass’ “Sunday Musings” for February 25, 2024 on her Substack newsletter The Cottage

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February 28, 2021

When I was in middle school, I started to become fascinated by the popular kids.  I would watch them and wonder how they managed to be surrounded by people all the time, how they were able to influence so many of those people.  At the time I didn’t know any of the sociological concepts of status or power or influence, but I had my hunches about how those things worked.

Don’t worry.  As I made my way through high school and got more comfortable in my own nerdy skin, I had good friends and got involved in plenty of things I found fun, from marching band to math team.  From time to time I still wondered what gave those kids at the top of the high school food chain so much power.  What drew other people to them like moths to a flame?  Eventually I decided that those people who flocked to be near the popular kids wanted some kind of power-by-association. They longed for a portion of the status that those kids held so effortlessly.

Now I certainly don’t think Jesus was about power or status in the traditional sense, but I wonder if the disciples wanted that same kind of power-by-association.  They had certainly watched Jesus do some amazing things.  He had cast out demons and healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, and the sick with a touch or a word.  He had walked on water and calmed a storm and fed thousands.  His preaching and teaching attracted a crowd, and those crowds clamored after Jesus wherever he went.

Not long after today’s gospel the disciples will reveal just how much they long for some power and status of their own.  They’ll get caught by Jesus arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (9:33-34).  James and John at one point will ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and on his left when he comes into glory, and you better believe that ticked off the rest of the disciples (10:35-45).  Jesus keeps reminding them that he has come not to be served, but to serve – and that they are likewise called to be servants of all.  But they don’t always want to hear that part.

Sometimes the disciples seem to get it right.   Just minutes before today’s gospel, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had nailed the right answer: “You are the Messiah.”  Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one sent by God to save the world.  But Peter also freaks out when Jesus tells his followers that he will suffer and be killed.  Peter does not want to hear that difficult truth, and Jesus has some harsh words for him. Peter probably is setting his mind on human things more than divine ones.  Peter understandably wants Jesus to use his power and his popularity to avoid the terrible fate that Jesus describes.  What’s the point of having that power if not to summon an army to one’s defense?

It’s not enough that Jesus refuses to use his power in the way that the disciples expect.  It’s that he also makes it clear that he wants them to follow in his path of service and sacrifice.  He says: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This hardly seems like a winning recruitment slogan.  Take up your cross. Remember that at this point the listeners know the cross only as an instrument of execution used by the Roman Empire to silence anyone who seemed like a political threat.

Jesus is essentially saying: “If you follow me, be prepared to give up what you really want.  Be prepared to give your whole life.  Be prepared to die.”

For most of us that would have been the moment when we said, “All right, Jesus.  It’s been fun.  I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but I’ll be going back home now.  Good luck to you!”

What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to lose their lives for his sake?  I don’t think he means that we should become doormats.  He certainly doesn’t mean that we must endure abuse or harassment in our relationships.  This passage has sometimes been used to justify that kind of suffering in the face of abuse, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

The life to which Jesus calls his disciples – the life to which he calls us – is one of sacrificial love.  It means getting up each day and looking for the ways that we can be of service to the people in our lives – family, friends, strangers, people in need near and far. And to offer that service as much as is possible with a loving heart.  Not resentfully.  Not by keeping score.  Simply giving all that we can, freely and graciously.

Some days we would rather not take up the cross in that way.  The cost feels too great.  It often means, as Jesus says, that we deny ourselves.  We set aside our own preferences and priorities for the sake of others.  And of course we sometimes long to bask in a little glory – to get some recognition for our labors – or maybe to wallow in our own martyrdom, certain that no one else has given as much as we have.  Jesus reminds us not to wait around for that kind of affirmation from the world.  That’s not what matters. 

Peter understandably gets upset when Jesus talks about suffering and dying.  But Peter seems to miss a really important detail.  Jesus says he will suffer and be killed and after three days rise again.  Maybe that’s too crazy for Peter to imagine, but it reveals an important truth.  Death is not the end of the story.  Suffering and sacrifice are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story.  There is also an empty tomb.

It’s that triumph of life over death that holds us up as we seek to embody God’s own sacrificial love in our lives.  And there are so many ways to live that love.  Think about the places it shows up.  We take up the cross when we care for a baby, feeding and rocking and changing that little one in spite of the sleep and sanity we are losing.  We take up the cross when we care for aging parents and other older folks in our lives – calling and checking in and helping them get connected to a vaccine and – when possible to do safely – visiting in person.  Parents take up a cross when you allow your teenager another chance to have some freedom, even though it’s terrifying.  Teenagers, you take up a cross when you help a friend avoid doing something stupid and potentially life-threatening.  We take up a cross when we give from our resources of time and money to feed the hungry in our community.  We take up the cross when we speak out against the racism and violence that people of color experience every day, when we work to dismantle those forms of oppression.

In all the ways we take up the cross, we do so because love is a gift.  A gift that we have received from God beyond our deserving and can’t help but share.

Theologian Richard Lischer reminds us that when Martin Luther went searching for what kind of God we have, he realized that we can look at the cross. On the cross we see God’s truest self.  In a world where gracelessness is the norm and grace the exception, in a world where hate and greed and white supremacy attack the dignity of human beings, it’s important to tell the truth about Jesus – that Jesus gives himself to defy those forces of evil.[i]

And so we try to live with that same kind of love, overflowing with gratitude for what we have first been given.  In Lischer’s words: “For the best liberators are those who have been liberated. The best lovers are those who know what it is to be loved. The best forgivers are those whose sins have been forgiven.”

So, people of God, take up the cross this week.  Live as those who are liberated, loved, forgiven.  Because that is who you are. Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/righteousness-prude-and-righteousness-lover

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