If you are here most weeks you might have noticed that we have spent a lot of time in Mark chapter 1, even repeating some verses, then boomeranged to chapter 9, back to 1, and now back to chapter 8. There are reasons for this, we follow a liturgical year so we want to read about Jesus being baptized on the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, we want to read about Jesus being tempted in the desert for 40 days when we start Lent, and in Mark those things are like one or two verses long only. We read about the transfiguration on that feast day, and now we are in the second week of Lent and the last week that we will be in Mark for awhile- because Mark is short we patch in the gospel of John, starting next week.
I say all this to get to the point that we are missing the flow we would get if we sat down to read the gospel all the way through. Which I recommend, especially the gospel of Mark it might take you just over an hour, depending on your reading speed. The verses we read start with “then”- well, when? It’s right after that moment that Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah- the one God has sent, and chosen, a savior, an anointed one to lead the people. Then- then Jesus begins to teach his followers that he will suffer and be rejected, and be killed. Right after a glorious moment of perception, what might have been a moment the disicples thought they should celebrate- it really is true, Jesus is the ONE! Right away Jesus has to adjust their expectations as to what this means.
Remember, again, Jesus and Peter and the disciples are living under the heel of the Roman empire, daily witnessing and experiencing the physical and emotional and psychological harm of living under another regime. Peter wants to be free from that, is sure that God’s salvation will mean some kind of victory over these enemies and oppressors. So he says to Jesus- No no no, you can’t suffer and be rejected and be killed- it’s the antithesis of what Peter thought he was getting right about Jesus- the one to lead them to salvation.
But Jesus isn’t there to change things the way Peter wants him to. Yes there will be a change. But a change in understanding the way God wants to work in the world. Not conquering by force, but something else. After three days, rise from the dead. I’ve said it before, I don’t think Peter heard that part the first time. It might have just been too unbelievable, to be dead and then be alive again. But that is what Jesus also said. not a victory over one death-dealing regime that could be taken back, a victory to show that God is a God of life and no human kingdom or empire or regime can take that away.
But to get there, Jesus has to stick to his mission. It is the sticking to his mission, his project of life and love, healing and sharing- sharing food, sharing pain, sharing time, seeking too, God’s justice- that will mean he must be killed. He needs to reveal the extent of evil and the extent to which his own people’s leaders are cooperating in that, in order to show just how different God’s ways are. Let them take even his life without in the least deserving that punishment, to show how awful and unjust we humans can be, and how God is never okay with that.
So he says, if you are going to be in this with me, you must also take up your cross. Not take up a sword. Not take up even, a shield. No offense, no defense, no fighting at all: just the offering of your very self. But in the offering of your very self, your very life, something happens, he says: you find it. You find life, truly, in the giving away.
I think at least part of what he meant was, you find God there. You find God in the giving away of yourself, if it is that kind of giving that Jesus is modeling, because that is what God does. God is grace, God is gift without deserving it. God is unconditional love. The more you do this, the more you realize how God is right there with you.
My colleague Elizabeth Rawlings writes this week about how a mentor of hers, a pastor of an older generation confessed to her that he was taught that church was there to comfort people, and carried out his ministry in that way. To provide comfort, in every circumstance. I believe God often wants to comfort us in our pain. But just as Jesus had to take up the cross and invites us to do the same, there is a lot about our calling as his followers that is not meant to be comfortable at all.
This is the characteristic of white supremacy culture we are thinking about this week: a right to comfort. Throughout the weeks of Lent we are focusing on how we can repent from a culture that encourages and enables white supremacy. One part of this is a right to comfort. For a group to think we have a right to be comfortable and not have to think about other peoples’ pain, or be bothered to change anything about our lives, is a big part of white supremacy culture. So, when something about the reality of racism is brought up, for example, the culture of white supremacy hits back and blames the person bringing it up for saying something uncomfortable. Or there is some kind of false equivalency drawn- saying because something bad also happened to me, a white person, that is the same as the systemic devaluation of Black and brown lives.
All kinds of people can experience, do experience pain and harm and things that are unfair. That does not undo the reality that in our country, your skintone, accent and features have an awful lot to do with the patterns of unfair and harmful things that happen to you, over and over. Yet the right to comfort often keeps those of us who are white from contemplating how awful that is, how against God’s desires, and what really needs to happen for that to change. We’d rather be comforted.
I got a gift from the annual conference, along with every other pastor and deacon, for the gathering of the orders last month, actually a few things. But one that I am especially grateful for is this little devotional. African American History and devotions by Teresa L. Fry Brown, pastor and seminary professor. The fourth one is titled “look in the mirror.” They are written firstly for African Americans but it has been good for me to read them. This devotion tells about the ministry of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who in his ministry in the time just after the civil war, in the late 1800s, often preached “God is a Negro.” He read the Genesis account where God created male and female in the image of God and took seriously the concept that one image hasn’t been more reflective of God than another since the beginning- and saw the need for his fellow African Americans to claim that they were not inferior to white people in any way, but equally created in that image of God. You may remember that in that period of history there was a lot of quote unquote “science” being propagated saying Black people were in fact inferior, especially in intelligence. Some people still ascribe to those ideas today.
Bishop McNeal Turner had been a politician and a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal church, elected to the Georgia state legislature, he worked with Abraham Lincoln to establish the first black regiment in the Civil war and served as the first black chaplain in the military. True to his message that all are equally created in God’s image, he ordained a woman as a pastor in the AME church in 1884- several decades before other Methodist churches would- Yet because he stuck to this message that made people uncomfortable, God is a Negro- in a world that very much evaluated individuals by their skin color, it cost him in his political career. He might have moved toward national leadership of some kind if he had been able to tone down his message and make other people comfortable. But he, in that way I would say, took up his cross. He followed the example of Jesus and was true to his mission. He knew something to be true- Black people needed that shedding of inferiority, imagining God as a Negro, more than white people needed to be comfortable or than he needed their approval.
Over time, unfortunately, The comfort of white people won. He faded into the background. Yet here is his story to poke at us, poke at our conception of God, make us maybe a little uncomfortable.
Being uncomfortable is the beginning of growing. Dying is necessary before being raised to eternal life. Jesus calls his disciples to voluntarily put their lives on the line, to give up comforts that take something away from someone else. To give up ways that cooperate with Empires, like greed and fear and shame, to take up ways that are in line with the kingdom of God like self-giving love, sharing, sacrifice that is in line with God’s purpose.
There is comfort and discomfort in the gospel, they are both there to help bring us closer to an experience of God who holds nothing back and wants for all to know their worth how much they are loved, that all are created in God’s image, and even though we might give our selves away God has power to bring life out of every kind of death.
So may we consider what our cross is to take up- what ways we voluntarily can let go of a right to comfort, a dream that is only glory and victory, and stay true to all Christ has taught us, may we take up our cross of what changes might be needed for God’s way of love to be evident to all.