Um … no thanks

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Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018, Year B

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the crucified and risen Christ: Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

There is hardly a Scripture passage I struggle with more than today’s Gospel reading. I have to agree with Mark Twain, who said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks openly: he will suffer, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again. This isn’t even the part that bothers me the most; it’s what comes in verse 34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This is a part of Scripture I want to skip over, or minimize. I want to think it means something other than what Jesus plainly says.

Jesus makes it absolutely clear that if someone wants to follow him, they must deny themselves, and that following him will lead a person to the cross.

So, what does this mean?

First, denying oneself. The truth about being human is that our first and natural instinct is self-preservation and promoting our own good. We have a fight or flight response where our body simply takes over when it is threatened. We do all we can to avoid suffering and pain. We hear of school shootings and other atrocities, and without even thinking about it, we have a sense of relief and realize we are grateful that it wasn’t me.

For you and I to deny ourselves is to go against our natural instincts. We put someone else’s needs or safety before our own.

Now, this isn’t too difficult to do if it is someone we love, or if it is a little person in our care. But as we come to know Jesus, we understand that he is asking his followers to deny themselves on his account, as well as for people whose lives we believe may not be worth our own.

Second, Jesus tells us we are to take up our cross and follow him.

In a nutshell, taking up one’s cross leads to suffering. Now this is not suffering that comes when we get sick, or smash our finger with a hammer, or when we endure abuse, or suffer because of our own poor decisions.

The kind of suffering Jesus is talking about is for the sake of the Gospel. It is the kind of suffering that comes when we risk our lives for the sake of someone else, or when people become angry with us because we are speaking up about the unequal distribution of wealth, or when we lose family and friends because we follow Jesus.

Theologian Lamar Williamson writes: “The cross Jesus invites his hearers to take up refers not to the burdens life imposes from without but rather to painful, redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others” [Mark, p. 154].

I almost changed our prayer of the day today, but didn’t for the sake of conversation. I also didn’t change it because it makes me uncomfortable, which is the same thing Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading do to me.

Our prayer of the day says: “Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son …”

Did any of you read this and think: “What on earth am I praying? Who wants to gladly suffer shame and loss? No thank you!”

As we read further into the Gospel of Mark and approach Good Friday during Holy Week, we know Jesus is headed to the cross. Like he said, he will suffer and die on it.

For Peter and the rest of the disciples, this is shocking. They believe that Jesus was to be the one to drive out the Romans from their land and become king. They cannot even fathom Jesus being crucified, and what kind of good could come from it. They also know that if Jesus is headed to the cross and they follow him, they will end up there too. The cross was horrifying, almost unspeakable, and Jesus tells his disciples to pick it up and follow after him.

A good question to ask ourselves is this: What does it look like today to be a Christian, or to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus?

When I saw the bulletin cover for this week I instantly thought of my year living on the border of Mexico and the US. The fence, barbwire, and hand reaching up reminds me of a worship service in which people came together on both sides of the border fence: half in El Paso, TX, and half in Juarez, Mexico. It was at this service that I first met Sister Betty.

Later, some friends and I visited her in her home in Juarez. She lived with a Catholic Priest named, Father Peter. They dedicated their lives to serving the people who lived on what used to be a garbage dump outside the city.

I listened to them speak of the dangers they faced each day. No matter what happened to them, they had peace in that they knew they were where they were supposed to be. It was the first time I came to understand what it might mean to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus.

It’s true that very few of us will be Sister Betty’s or Father Peter’s in the world, and that’s okay. For many of us, following Jesus can look quite different. I cannot tell you what your cross looks like or where Jesus might be calling you to follow, but Lent is a good time for you to ponder and pray about this.

We can pray: “Lord Jesus, help me to have the courage to follow where you lead me, even if I will suffer for your sake.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons I struggle so much with Jesus’ words. Most days I don’t want to pray this prayer. I have lost a great deal for the sake of the Gospel.

Even though this is true, I can honestly say, that if it were not for the cross of Christ and his death for your sake and mine, we would be left without hope. To know God is to know and see God hidden and present in suffering. When we suffer and when we face our own deaths, we have hope because of the cross.

The cross in our context today is softened a bit. Symbols of the cross are everywhere in our worship space. I wear one around my neck every Sunday. I know at least one of you carries a cross around in your pocket wherever you go. We wear crosses from the holes in our ears and have them tattooed onto our skin. The cross can and does bring comfort to us.

When you come up for a blessing during communion or for prayer during the healing rite, you receive the sign of the cross on your forehead. If you have participated in Intergenerational Christian Education before worship, someone has said words of blessing as they make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

When people, even babies, are baptized, we hear the words, Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This is meant to be good news and is a promise that no matter what, God is with you.

Paul writes in Romans that we have a God who gives life to the dead. We know this because of the cross. God has transformed an instrument of death into life through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So let us be reminded this day of the mark we bear. I invite you to make the sign of the cross on your forehead and remember that you belong to God.