“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter received no confirmation that he was right, only the command to silence, not to tell anyone about Jesus.
In today’s lesson, then, on that journey, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, will be rejected, will be killed, and three days later will rise again. This is the first of three pronouncements about Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection that he gives in Mark, the first written of the Gospels. Years later, Matthew & Luke provide similar accounts in their gospels. Each telling is followed, of course, by the disciples’ failure to understand. (Those disciples always get a bad rap.)
Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this moment had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future. But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that – contrary to all their hopes and expectations – he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again in three days. It was about the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.
Did Jesus really know ahead that he would suffer the shame of death by crucifixion, as he suggests here? Probably. Jesus was not the only miracle worker trolling through Palistine healing the sick and casting out demons. For the Jews of Palistine, the First Century was an era of apocalyptic expectations. Countless self-proclaimed prophets, preachers, and messiahs trampted through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment, many also offering healing and exorcisms, for a fee.
We even know many of these so-called Messiahs by name. The book of Acts tells us that the prophet Theudas had 400 disciples before Rome cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure referred to as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. Another messianic hopeful, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome – a sure sign the authorities had become sensitive to apocalyptic fever being in the air with a hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Kochba, and many hundreds more – all of whom had Messianic ambitions, and all of whom were killed for doing so. Add to this the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sicarii (or Daggermen), and it’s not hard to imagine an era full of Messianic energy. Jesus surely would have been aware of the fate that met the false Messiahs ahead of him, so he could probably predict his future too.
Crucifixion was a widespread and exceedingly common form of execution in New Testament days, used by many nations. One reason it was so common was that it was cheap, it could be carried out most anywhere; all one needed was a tree. The torture could last for days without needing an actual torturer. The procedure for the crucifixion was usually left entirely up to the executioner. Some victims were hooded, some were suspended upside down, some had their privates impaled, most were stripped naked. But, strangly perhaps, it would be wrong to think of crucifixions as a death penalty, for often the victim was first executed and then nailed to a cross. The purpose of the crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal, as it was to serve as a deterrent to others who might defy the state (although people kept on doing the things for which they could be executed, so I’m not sure capital punishment served as such a great deterent then – or now). For the deterrent reason, crucifixions were always carried out in public – at crossroads, on high ground – anywhere the population had a good view of the gruesome scene. The crucified were rarely buried, nobody claiming the body, usually being left for dogs and birds of prey to strip bare before the bones were discarded.
Simply put, crucifixion was more than a capital punishment for Rome; it was a public reminder of what happens when one challenges the empire. And so it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: especially rebellion, sedition, and treason – which is how the authorities looked at Jesus’ behavior.
From our perspective today, the cross is the symbol of Christianity. That Jesus was crucified for our sins gave us the cross as an icon for our religion. While Jesus was alive, of course, the cross had had nothing to do with the cult of Jesus. The great hope of the Israelite people at that time was freedom from the Roman overlords. Having seen Jesus’ miracles, experienced his magnetic personality as they followed him, and watched him draw enthusiastic crowds, it would have been natural for them to assume that Jesus would somehow challenge their subservient role under the Romans.
So after Peter tries to rebuke Jesus, Jesus responds that such an opinion is a “human” way of thinking. It’s what we all would have thought had we been among those first disciples. Jesus not only rebukes Peter, but then shocks them all even more deeply by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future too. Those who would follow him will “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” As if that’s not enough, Jesus
continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.
This news was so contrary to the disciple’s expectations and so difficult to comprehend that Jesus would have to repeat it twice more in Mark. The second time he spoke of this they still did not understand him, but “were afraid to ask him,” probably for fear of being rebuked again.
We do not follow Jesus by demeaning ourselves. We are called upon to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. To “deny oneself” means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” – love God and love your neighbor.
There was a ray of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it or understood it. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again. That was a whole new concept that would have been quite hard to comprehend.
Jesus gives us this hope for the future, but in this text we are called upon to follow him not just for this future, but in this life. Furthermore, to follow him now means as he said: a life “more abundant.”
At a critical point in our Gospel lesson, Jesus called his hearers to follow him. On more than twenty specific occasions in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry he asked the people, individually or in groups, to leave what they were doing and come after him. The question – Who is willing to follow Jesus Christ? – may be the defining question for Christians today.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny some substance or casual practice, but rather it is his invitation for us to imagine living a life of concern for others, a life of true compassion for the suffering, a life of giving to those in need.
This is what I hope we learn from our Gospel lesson for today. Every time we open ourselves to the needs of those around us … every time we actually take time to love someone who desperately needs our love … every time we get out of ourselves a little and seek not just what we want but what the world needs … we get a little closer to what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of … “taking up your cross and following me.”
As we move deeper into the Lenten season, I hope that we will take seriously the call that first came to us in baptism, a call that hopefully takes on greater meaning as we make decisions and order the priorities of life.
I feel drawn to close with a well-known prayer from St. Francis of Assisi that feels right for today:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
A long time since we broke bread together. Since we felt that peace which passeth all understanding as it spreads throughout our entire body as we receive communion alongside our fellow parishioners. Such a very long time since we harmonized a favorite hymn or embraced one another in a hug or handshake at the Peace. For the first time in our lives, we may now have a glimmer of understanding for what it was like for the Israelites wandering or for Jesus wrestling with his identity in the wilderness. Before it was just a story, and now, as a community we understand the quality, the feel in our bones, of what it means when we say a very long time.
When we began the season of Lent last year, we had no idea it would come to be so different from every other Lent in our lives. We entered the wilderness, and we have remained here. Don’t get me wrong, we have observed other liturgical seasons, marking Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Yet the quality of this time has been of a year long Lent. No one needs to tell us about the meaning of fasting this year. We understand in our core what it means to fast from communion. Both the communion we experience when we are in-person worshiping together as well as the communion we experience when we break bread together and receive the Holy Eucharist.
We also know that while this wilderness seems to drag ever onwards, that there really is an end insight. Vaccines are being distributed. Case numbers are lowering. The vestry is working on fixing our sound system so we will be able to offer streaming and in-person worship sooner than later.
As we climb this mountain, we might imagine that soon we will be greeted with a beautiful vista; then we will descend down the mountain to the way things were. Right? We can go back to the way things were, and finally sit back and relax.
That’s what usually happens isn’t it? I mean, when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, it was to go have lunch at his mom’s house, right? And the Israelites, they got to set up camp and relax, right? Unfortunately, the version of these stories where people get to relax after their time in the wilderness, did not seem to make the canonical version of the holy scriptures. Instead, when people reemerge from the wilderness it tends to be when the real work sets in. For Jesus, it is when his public ministry began. For us, it will be a time to reimagine what it means to be the Church.
A wise colleague said to me recently that once all of our churches have reopened to in-person worship, churches will choose one of two paths. Some will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, relax, and in their exhaustion, stop actively being the Church, which will ultimately lead to their decline and closure. Some churches will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, and double down in their efforts to reimagine who they are and what their mission is NOW, having lived through this experience together. It is these churches who embrace the work before them that will survive, and even thrive, in the ever shifting sands of the changing Church. This will happen across the Episcopal Church and every branch of the Jesus Movement. This will happen across every kind of institution, period.
I realize, this is not what anyone wants to hear. We are tired, and ready to resume what we once thought of as normal. But that’s now how this faith business works. When we emerge from the wilderness, our most vital work will just be beginning.
Some of you have heard the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hired the team to explore the newly acquired territory of the unexplored west. At the time, there was a working assumption that the geography of the west would be similar to what folks knew of the east. The team carried canoes, presuming they would be a vital tool as they relied on waterways to make their journey. Instead, when they reached Lemhi Pass, the view they beheld was not a river that would take them further west, but rather an endless and terrifying range of mountains (Bolsinger 27). It was here that Lewis & Clark were forced to shift the mental model they had been working with. They abandoned their boats, found horses, and shifted gears (Bolsinger 93).
Tod Bolsinger reflects on the journey of Lewis & Clark in his book, Canoeing the Mountains.
He writes something that I think is pertinent for all of us to sit and pray with:
“And at that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey had changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into unchartered territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no ‘best practices’ and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure--the real discovery--was just beginning” (Bolsinger 27).***
We know that in the not-so-distant future we will emerge from this wilderness and begin our own true adventure. Which is why these last weeks in the wilderness could be a gift if we shift the mental model we have been working with to see our situation somewhat differently. It is also why this is the Lent to double down in our spiritual practices. This is the Lent to embed scripture into our daily life. This is the Lent to pray every day. This is the Lent to meet regularly with a spiritual companion and share what is happening in our lives and pray together. This is the Lent for us to double down in our efforts to be still, and know that I am God, as the psalmist writes.** This is a season of preparation.
When we finally emerge from this wilderness, this year long Lent, we will have our most important work together to date. And we are a merged congregation, who already knows and understands a thing or two about change, grief, resilience, leaning into our faith and onto one another. Remember, when we tell our story, we always say we emerged. This idea of ever-evolving into something new, stronger, and more whole. This might be an important time for us to remember we did not only emerge on Emerging Sunday on April 23, 2017. We did not just emerge in our first year together. We are the people of Saints James and Andrew, and we are an ever emerging Church, as we seek to follow God’s ongoing call.
As we begin Lent this week, I invite us to lean fully into our faith and embrace this season in the wilderness. May it prepare us for the vital and important work of mission and ministry that lay before us. Amen.
*The number of days since COVID-19 was identified as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
*** Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory. InterVarsity Press, 2015, Downers Grove, Illinois.
We know Mark’s gospel was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. It is a brief and fast-paced read.
The author intends for us to take in every detail and moment.
The gospel begins by introducing us to John the Baptist, who by verse nine is baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. In Mark’s version of the baptism, when Jesus comes up and out of the water, he alone witnesses something spectacular. The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, while a voice from heaven said, just to him: ”You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”(1:10).
From there, Jesus retreated into the wilderness. When he reemerges, he does so as a leader of a movement. In this role he proclaims the good news of God’s love in his preaching, teaching, healing, and in the way he models being in relationship with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized. Seemingly everyone who encounters him comes to understand there is something special about Jesus. His disciples know he is a servant of God, a prophet, maybe something more.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain for some time away from their robust ministry. While together in this sacred space, Jesus takes on a blinding brightness. It is only then the disciples notice Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses.
These three disciples are in a state of shock, even terrified. Peter’s first reaction is to recognize the sacredness, the presence of the holy. He longs to do what we all tend to do when we encounter the holy--build a box or container or in this case dwellings--where the holy could remain forever.
Yet before Jesus could respond, a cloud moved into the space, making it difficult to see much of anything. From within the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (1:7)
This time when God calls Jesus, ‘my Son, the Beloved’...
Elijah and Moses heard.
In the overarching narrative of Mark’s gospel, this is a critical moment where the circle is widened. God has not only spoken directly to Jesus, but now has spoken to his inner circle. This was not just some wild and crazy experience that only Jesus can vouch for at his baptism. Those he loves the most have now heard from their Creator that Jesus is somehow both human and divine.
It did not need to make sense to ring true for the disciples. Nor does it really need to make sense to ring true for us. Like the disciples, we may have more questions than answers, and that's okay.
The aspect of this story that I find most powerful is actually the vulnerability shown by Jesus in the transfiguration. He takes his innermost circle with him for some sacred time apart. With God’s help, Jesus reveals the fullness of who he is. Jesus can let down his guard; be vulnerable; and share with those who understand him the most*.
It’s poignant that God did not transfigure Jesus in the feeding of the 5,000, or while he was teaching in the temple. This was not a public act meant for the people. This was a tender and private moment, for Jesus to name for his own beloved exactly what he has been holding onto all by himself.
Think about your own innermost circle. When one of your beloved has named something tender and private, as part of their ongoing journey of transformation. Maybe your beloved found the courage and the vulnerability to…
...express their gender or sexual identity.
...share a hope and dream they’ve been holding onto.
...reveal abuse or a decaying marriage.
...get brutally honest about the amount of racial reconciliation work they must do.
...admit just how empty their well is as we approach the one year anniversary of living in this pandemic.
The thing about being human is we need one another. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, needed to share what was really happening with a few trusted friends. We may like to put on stoic faces and march ever onwards, but generally all we are doing is burying tender and sacred parts of who we are that God means for us to share with one another. To hold one another in support and friendship.
Some of you have probably seen the show Grey’s Anatomy, where the lead character routinely refers to another character as “My Person”. They were not childhood best friends. They met as residents in a surgical program and as different as they were from one another, found deep and lasting friendship.
We all need to be able to look at another human being and say, “You’re my person”. We need to ask our inner circle to join us and get real about what’s happening in our lives, just as we see Jesus model in the transfiguration.
Twelves months into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to give surface level answers when friends or family ask us how we are.
“Will be glad when this is over.”
What if this week we got honest with one person about what is happening in our own inner life? To share the burden we are carrying or the dream we are nurturing. Call one friend or zoom your inner circle. It’s easy to think we do not need to be so vulnerable.
Yet if even Jesus in all his full divinity and humanity needed to be vulnerable with a few close and trusted friends, surely we do as well. This kind of vulnerability and rigorous honesty is part of our own ongoing transformation. Without it our faith and growth can remain stagnant. In the coming week, I invite each of us to lean into our own inner circles. Find a time to connect virtually or in person, and share what’s really happening in our lives--the joys, the fears, the challenges, and the hopes. Amen.
*St. Stephen's introduced this idea in their weekly bible study reflection February 14, 2021, Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year B. This is a great weekly resource which I encourage folks to check out as part of ongoing scripture study.
By the way, there are many options for finding reliable health related information. The National Institute of Health has a page which lists the questions to ask before trusting a health-related website. In addition to the NIH, and CDC, I find the Harvard Health Newsletters and anything that comes from the Mayo Clinic to be very useful and trustworthy. (I’m a bit biased about the Mayo Clinic because I happen to be in an exciting research study there for a particular kind of heart condition.)
Most medical practices, health insurers and clinics have help lines where you can speak with a clinician. Telehealth and telemedicine are new ways to visit your provider, and for many questions and conditions this can be very useful.
So now, back to today’s lessons, and the Bible as a source of reliable information. Isn’t it spectacular that this old document, over and over again, speaks to us thru the ages and generations? I love the signs you sometimes see on United Church of Christ lawns, “God is still speaking….” and when life is complicated and advice is all too available, what a comfort it is to turn to scripture for some sound, straightforward advice.
It is important to know a bit about when it was written, who it was written for, and what the audience’ culture and ideas were. Although knowledge and science changes, the human condition, in many ways stays the same. David, the great musician and psalmist knew this, as did the writers of the canticles, they knew that every human emotion: joy, gratitude, fear, sorrow discouragement, and hope would need expression forever. I think the Bible was written for regular folk like you and me. I have found that if I don’t work so hard at understanding, my understanding increases. As Canon Rich Simpson suggests, hit your mute button and just listen!
From Isaiah, beautiful Isaiah, the musical prophet….is it no wonder that Handel loved him so? Isaiah gives us poetry that is lyrical and singable: “Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been told you from the beginning, have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
Isaiah 40 gives us a picture of the earth as teacher: if you have questions, big questions, look at God’s creation, look at the grasshoppers, the roots of plants, the tempest winds and soaring eagles. Isaiah gives 2 pieces of simple advice. He says “Lift up your eyes on high and see”, and then “wait for the Lord and your strength will be renewed”. So much of life is hard work, but this is not…look and wait. Keep your eyes, ears and all your senses open and ready.
David the psalmist, says “Sing and make music, praise God. Praise God as star-counter, rain-bringer, grass- grower, and then wait for God’s gracious favor. Praise and wait. One of the saddest realities of this viral pandemic is that singing together is a great viral particle spreader. I’ve spoken before about the health benefits of singing: singing relieves stress, stimulates the immune response, increases the pain threshold, improves lung function, enhances memory and improves mood and mental health. Musicians persist, and thanks to the persistence and talent of music teachers and choir directors like Joe, many of us are singing and recording at home, then our voices are put together in some magical way which I cannot explain! So good medical advice says sing on, on the trail, or in the shower or in the car, sing praise!
The beautiful Song of Hannah is a triumphant thank-you to God and it has many parallels to Mary’s Magnificat in Luke. The birth of Hannah’s child Samuel was an answer to her prayers late in life, and as she understood he was given to her by God, she vowed to offer him to the service of the temple when he was weaned, giving him to Eli to assist in the care of the temple and in worship. Quite a sacrifice of love. I believe that Mary understood her mothering sacrifice also. If you read a bit further on in 1st Samuel, you learn that Hannah and Samuel’s father Elkhana visit the boy-priest each year, and bring their yearly temple sacrifice and a new, hand-made linen tunic for Samuel. Gift and sacrifice, received and given. (As a stitcher and a lover of hand-made gifts, I’m touched by this simple story.) Hannah (and Mary) teach us that in spite of the sacrificial nature of giving, or because of it, we should also sing a most triumphant song of praise to God. A God who is the giver of all good gifts, and a God who will raise the poor, lift the needy and sit them with rulers in a place of honor. Hannah says, simply, give thanks and praise for what is given to you and give back, extravagantly.
In the Gospel today, Mark tells us another story about Jesus ministry, some good advice about the often-overwhelming amount of need in the world. Jesus spent another busy day healing the sick. First Simon’s mother-law, and then it sounds like the whole city lined up at his door, all of them ill and possessed with demons. Can you picture the vaccine lines? He got a little sleep and then he woke and went to a deserted place to pray. The disciples hunted him down, wanting him to start another day of healing. This, after all, was a very extravagant and amazing aspect of his ministry. Who doesn’t like a good miracle? But Jesus says no, “today we will go on to the neighboring town to proclaim God’s message”. Time for healing, time for prayer, time for proclaiming God’s message of love! He hits the pause button on the healing, and he refuses to be compartmentalized. He knows that one should not separate the physical, social, spiritual and political aspects of life. He sees the big picture, for himself and for others. His ministry was holistic, and part of that ministry was to proclaim God’s vision of a Beloved Community for everyone, no exceptions.
And so, I ponder this. As we seek to understand our mission in the beloved community, where will we hear God speaking? Where do we go to get the reliable advice we need? These ancient stories seem a good place to start: today’s readings tell us to look around at all God has given, sing God’s praise, give back extravagantly, and remember the biggest most inclusive picture of love you can imagine.
From Isaiah to today: may our eyes and ears be open to what has been told to us from the foundations of the earth. Amen
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