Preached on Lent II, March 4, 2012 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, CA
When we read or hear today’s story from the Gospel of Mark, it’s important to understand a few things about context.
First, when our first century gospeler, Mark, uses the phrase “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he’s not talking about that cross up there, which would be quite a heavy burden to carry. Although we often use the phrase “my cross to bear” when we talk about a particular hardship or burden we feel inconvenienced about having to attend to.
He’s also not talking about the crosses we wear today, the gold or silver reminders of our membership in the Body of Christ – those pendants that dangle from strings and ribbons and chains that can act as a barrier to those who have a problem with Christianity and as an open door to others who think you automatically believe the same things they do.
Nor is he talking about the cross of glory that glows with peace and joy, as we sang in the Gospel hymn just a few moments ago. Like the clip art we see on the internet where we see a starburst behind an image of a cross that is the icon of triumph, the badge of honor and pride that Christians have been using since the 3rd century as a sign of Christ.
This cross that Mark is talking about is not a burden nor a membership card nor an icon of the institutional church that reigns supreme, having conquered all the heathens. It’s an instrument of torture and death. Let me correct myself, a particularly extreme and brutal instrument of torture and death.
Several years ago a movie came out called The Passion of the Christ, which did such a good job of depicting the horror of death by crucifixion, that I won’t give you the gruesome details of the physicality of this death.
What I will say, is that this form of death was used a lot during wartime to coerce, threaten, oppress, and contain rebellion against the Roman Empire. They would erect dozens, sometimes hundreds of poles in a very public, well-travelled place and crucify hundreds of people at a time and then just leave them, leave the corpses of the dead on display as a warning to others. This was the Empire’s way of telling you, just what it thought of you and your people. It was not an honorable death.
So, when Mark uses the phrase “take up your cross and follow me…” let us truly consider what that meant to the people of first century Palestine. It was utterly horrific. A death full of shame and stigma. In our culture, it would be akin to dying homeless on the streets of a drug overdose without a penny to your name.
The second thing I want to point out about context is that we may be tempted to think that Peter was rebuking Jesus here because he was concerned about his friend. And out of love for him, he tries to talk him out of thinking these crazy thoughts and getting the rest of the group all riled up. This is not what’s happening.
Peter was upset because the image of a Messiah that Peter had, was a great warrior who would raise an army against the oppressive occupying force of Rome… not this whimpy coward of a man who would willingly and submissively accept that he was to die the most despicable death imaginable, bringing further shame to the Jews.
No, Peter wanted the Terminator, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clint Eastwood, Lisbeth Salander… someone who would lead the Jews on a kick-ass rampage over and against the occupying Roman force. He certainly wasn’t counting on this kind of Messiah.
But heroism isn’t always what we think it ought to be. And salvation is never found where we want to look for it.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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?
There are stories I could tell you, stories about some of the great leaders of the past century: Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Oskar Schindler, Ella Baker, Nelson Mandela.
These are not warriors in the classical sense. Yet many of these people, indeed, lost their life, or were at least imprisoned, in their work to liberate their brothers and sisters from the oppression of systemic sin.
I could tell you about how they “got it”… how they gave their lives to lead people to freedom. And they were and are messianic figures for their people. They lived out their covenant with God and are inspiring examples of leadership and sacrifice.
I could also tell you that many of the people who criticize the occupy movement, even those who support it, are frustrated that there is no leader, frustrated that there is no mouthpiece, no inspiring commander, saying amazing things, speaking truth to power. Indeed, this movement of the middle class is a leaderless movement.
And I have to wonder… are we waiting for a messiah? Again? Didn’t our messiah already come? Didn’t this man Jesus already tell us what to do? He said to take up our cross and follow him.
But what does that mean? Does that mean that we find a way to suffer the torment that Jesus suffered? Does that mean that we offer ourselves up to die? I think… yes… and no. I’ll come back to this in just a moment…
I watched a documentary last night called The Human Experience. It was a simple, beautiful movie about 4 young men from Brooklyn who live in group home, coming to live there due to various circumstances such as abusive homes, being orphaned, etc. They certainly didn’t live ideal lives and already had reason to be bitter towards the world. Well, they embark on a journey to find some answers in their young lives. Answers to questions like: What is this all about, this life experience? Who am I? Why do we search for meaning?
They spend time living on the streets of NYC with homeless people. They visit a hospital for abandoned and abused children in Peru. They talk with lepers and people dying of HIV AIDS in Africa. And again and again, these homeless men and women, these abandoned children, these lepers, the most marginalized, victimized people of society… they offer smiles of love, greet them with vulnerable welcome into their lives, and tell them that they know their life has a purpose, that they know their life is a gift.
Now, let me get back to my point and tell you what I mean by suggesting that we need to be willing to suffer torment and die because it has to do with the illustration that this movie provides.
I suspect that all of us in this parish live in the middle-low income range. I don’t know your incomes but I suspect that most of us have food, clothing, and a place to live, even if it’s because of the generosity of another person.
Yet even we live on a very slippery slope. We live a life of some privilege. We certainly struggle. I know I do! But we also live lives with a certain level of comfort. And the experience of having comfort, any comfort… can make us forget, can make us think that the purpose of our life is to maintain that comfort.
And our culture doesn’t help as we are faced with new and better smart phones, 200 channels on our TV, streaming movies on the internet, lattes, fancy cars… and those evil, evil Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups!
Is this the purpose of our life? Is salvation about maintaining our comfort?
Now, I’m not saying that we should feel guilty for having a latte or the latest smartphone or going to a movie. Guilt doesn’t help anyone.
What I’m saying is… for the sake of your own life, for the sake of your own salvation, ask yourself: What is it that I’m willing to die for? What is the purpose of my life? What is it that really and truly matters to me?
The fact is that our lives of relative comfort can insulate us because we become so accustomed to the maintenance of that life that we forget. We forget that until we are willing to lose everything, we really don’t have anything. Until we are willing to lose the world of our possessions, we will never really occupy our own life.
We don’t need a messiah, we already have one. His name is Jesus Christ and he already told us what to do. We don’t need an inspired leader. We need only to listen for the Holy Spirit. We just have to ask ourselves the question… what is my purpose today? What is it that really and truly matters to me today?
Maybe it’s to say hello to the homeless person you see every day on your way to work. Maybe it’s to remove your money from Bank of America or Wells Fargo and put it in a local bank. Maybe it’s to be more kind to yourself instead of always telling yourself how stupid you are. Maybe it’s to say no to alcohol for one more day. And maybe your purpose today is to write a letter to a friend.
And when we hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper and we respond with courage to go beyond our comfort zone, we have to be prepared for the times when our choice might result in crucifixion. A woman named Sandra Fluke knows what that’s like. She did was she felt was the right thing to do, by offering to testify to congress about the importance of access to birth control, and she was crucified, humiliated by a conservative talk show host who only apologized for his behavior when the sponsors of his show threatened to pull their support.
Sometimes it will be a big thing, but most often it will be a little thing. Because heroism isn’t always what we think it ought to be. And salvation is never found where we want to look for it.
Salvation always and only found within… when we search our own hearts for Christ and allow ourselves the space to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit.
So the question, my friends, is how are you to carry your cross today?