Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
March 14, 2000
Peace, Save the Lord
Let me say again how much I enjoy being here and commend you for being here in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day during the season of Lent, to mark this Lenten journey. I don't know that this happens in very many places.
I said yesterday that I would be looking at two different texts from the Gospel of Mark, wherein Jesus was getting ever closer to Jerusalem. Today the lesson is from the eighth chapter of Mark, beginning with the 31st verse:
Jesus 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." Jesus called the crowd. In other versions it says, "Jesus called to him the multitude with his disciples". Did you ever wonder how Jesus did that, called the crowd without a microphone? A crowd is very large, it was not like talking only to the 12 disciples, or eating at a table with tax collectors and sinners in a house. "Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said to them...." I think we have to assume that Jesus was talking to them all, not just to the 12. I wonder how many were in that crowd. Was it as big a crowd as those who ate on the hillside?
Mark tells us that there were 5,000 men who were fed. Matthew adds that there were 5,000 men, besides women and children, sort of an afterthought. I wonder if there were any women in this crowd at Caesarea Philippi. Did the women come alone, or did they come with their husbands? Did they bring their children? I wonder if the disciples tried to move the children to the back. I wonder if the disciples tried to move the women to the back. I wonder if the women could even hear from where they were standing.
Jesus called to him the crowd at Caesarea Philippi, right in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, the eighth chapter. If you opened the book of Mark, it would fall open to the eighth chapter, where Jesus heard Peter proclaim, "You are the Messiah." Where Jesus, for the first time, talked about suffering and dying and rising again. Where Peter refused to hear anything about it and rebuked Jesus, because Peter knew that Messiahs should never suffer.
When Jesus turned to rebuke Peter in very harsh words, "Get behind me, Satan!" I wonder what Peter was thinking as he stood there in the crowd. Could he really hear anything except those words ringing in his head, "Get behind me"? I wonder what others in the crowd heard that day when Jesus called the crowd, when Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." We'll never know; they didn't have microphones, and you can be sure they didn't have tape recorders.
But what about this crowd gathered today at Calvary Church in Memphis? Or the crowd that might be gathered other places outside the door, perhaps in the park or still at work? What do people in this crowd hear? I don't think we all hear this text the same way. What do you hear when Jesus says, "If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me"?
I wonder if African-American people hear this text the same way as Swedish-Americans like me hear it. Nobody has ever asked me to carry their burdens as we have asked African-Americans to carry ours. Would you say to a black person, "Slavery is the cross you have to bear"?
My colleague Dolores Williams talks about a conversation she remembers with her grandmother, where her grandmother was remembering a conversation she had had with her own mother, who had been a slave. Dolores' grandmother had said, "Mama, how could you have the same religion as the slave masters? How could that be possible that you both believe in God and have the same religion?" And her mama said, "Child, them and us both Christian, but we ain't got the same religion." She was right. She had had to turn on its head what she had heard her white masters say about Christianity. She heard something different about taking up the cross than the white masters heard.
What do you hear, those of you who are in the crowd today? Some women have told us what they hear. Pastor Joy Bussert, a friend of mine from seminary, has dedicated a big part of her life to working with women in shelters. She has put together a collection of her interviews with these women in a book titled, Battered Women: From a Theology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment. One woman interviewed said that when she first came to the shelter for help, she was told that the abuse was her cross to bear, but that God promised never to give her more than she could handle. "When I couldn't handle it anymore," she said, "I could only conclude that it must be my fault and my problem." When she went to her pastor, he not only signed her up for submission classes, but he suggested that she view the violence as a test of her capacity for real Christian servanthood.
Is this what Jesus meant? We don't all hear this the same. The words have been used at times by well-meaning friends to help us get through trouble, but they have also been used to keep people in dangerous situations from seeking help or knowing that life can be different.
Every study of domestic violence results in proof that many women who have been abused and who are now being abused grew up in very religious homes. This is not a problem for the atheist. Indeed, there are some churches which continue to teach submission, even submission that includes beatings. How do you hear what Jesus says at Caesarea Philippi?
The whole title of Pastor Bussert's book is important - Battered Women: From a Theology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment. In her book she tells a story about a woman named Jean.
Jean was a young mother interviewed at a shelter by Pastor Bussert. Jean talked about going to church, and she focused on Good Friday. She said, "I remember the part where they beat Jesus and spit on him, and I thought to myself, he must know how I feel." After a long pause she added, "But he just took it."
The pastor didn't argue with her at that moment. She could see the moment was very important for Jean, to know that Jesus was with her in every moment of suffering, and to know that Jesus knew how she felt. The pastor just sat with her for what seemed like a very long time. Finally she said, "Jean, what happened next?" Jean looked up with a note of wonder. "I almost forgot," she said. "There was Easter." "Yes," said the pastor, "and Easter means that those who hated Jesus did not have the final word, just like your being here at this shelter means that the one who has hurt you does not have the final word about your life."
It was the turning point for Jean. It was the moment that she stepped forward out of the crowd and heard Jesus say to her, "Jean, pick up your life and walk. What will it profit you to keep going back time after time just to look good in the face of the community? What will you gain by going back to save a marriage that is already dead? What will it profit you to gain all of this yet to forfeit your life?"
Jesus called the crowd, and every person in this crowd hears this text in slightly different ways. It may be that you and I need to be like those four friends in an earlier story in Mark's Gospel. Remember the four friends who tried to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus? There was such a crowd in front of the door and inside the house that they couldn't get in, but they didn't give up. Instead, without permission, they dug a hole through the roof and let their friend down, right in the middle of the house. Now, that was disruptive.
Sometimes we have to do things as friends that are a little disruptive - if we think a child is being harmed, if there's a woman in the choir who wears sunglasses all the time, even at night. What do we do as friends in the crowd? Sometimes a woman in a situation of harm must push her way through the crowd, like the woman did in Mark 5. She knew that she was unclean, for she had been bleeding for years, and she knew that if she touched anybody, they would become unclean. Yet she risked disruption and reached out through the crowd and touched Jesus' hand. Jesus called to her and said, "Daughter, your faith has saved you." Jesus called to him the crowd and said, "Any who would be my followers must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
Yesterday when the service ended and I was greeting people, someone slipped one of these little crosses into my hand. You may have picked one up on the way in, a little silver cross. You may carry it now in your pocket. What does it mean to take up this cross? It says, Jesus Christ is Lord. Nobody else is Lord, not another human being, not somebody who would try to lord it over you. To take up this cross is to know that nobody else is Lord. If someone tells you to bear a burden that is dangerous to your life and well-being, it is not taking up the cross of Jesus, because it means that somebody else is acting as lord over you.
In our church in New York City, at the end of the service, the assisting minister says, "Go in peace. Serve the Lord," and the whole congregation says, "Thanks be to God." One Sunday we had someone new as assisting minister, and she said, "Go in peace. Save the Lord." I think that's sometimes what we have to do, save the Lord. Save the name of Jesus from any notion of the cross which is burning on someone's lawn, a sign of racist hatred.
"Them and us both Christian, but we ain't got the same religion." "Go in peace. Save the Lord." Save the name of Jesus from any twisted cross that is bent into a swastika of hatred against our Jewish brothers and sisters who did not indeed kill Jesus. Save the Lord from Constantine's vision of the cross, remember? Constantine saw the cross stretched out across the horizon, and on it the word, conquer. Save the Lord from any use of Jesus' name on the lips of a friend or minister who would say to a woman, "This is the cross you have to bear." Jesus Christ is Lord, nobody else. Go in peace, save the Lord, who has indeed saved you. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, now go forth in the sign of the cross and know that it is the saving cross of Jesus Christ, a cross that sets you free from whatever burdens you. A cross which is with you in any depth of suffering, a cross on which Jesus loved us unto death and will never let us go. Go forth in Jesus' peace. Amen.
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