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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 25, 2018

Mark 8:31-38


This year, for Lent, we are exploring spiritual disciplines, the everyday practices by which we live out our lives of faith, our lives as Christians.  These are the choices we make—often mundane—that put our ideals to work, that translate our beliefs into deeds, that put our faith into action.  As many of you know, Rev. Sue Foster from the East Woodstock Congregational Church and I have compiled a menu of four practices from which, we suggest, you might choose one to engage in this season.  The practice of prayer and meditation, the practice of fasting, the practice of saying yes and saying no, and the practice of keeping sabbath are four wonderful, challenging ways to grow in your faith as we journey through Lent.

My friend Tom, who is pastor in the Midwest, has taken on a different Lenten discipline this year.  Instead of meditating, or fasting, or discerning, or keeping sabbath, or any of a variety of other traditional faith practices, Tom is carrying with him through his days a sledgehammer.  Wherever he goes, whatever he does, in every waking moment, he carries this large, heavy hammer with him.  At the grocery store and the library; at the coffee shop and the bar; walking down the sidewalk on his way to church—for every one of these 40 Lenten days, Tom is lugging with him that sledgehammer.

For him, it is a symbol of the work he feels called to do:  the work of dismantling all the powers and principalities and systems that oppress people based on their race or gender or sexuality, their language or economic class or national origin.  Tom feels called, as they say, to “smash the patriarchy.”  And he has chosen a visible, tangible, weighty symbol to remind himself of this calling wherever he goes.

He has discovered, however, in the first week and a half of his practice, that not everyone sees a man with a sledgehammer and immediately thinks of solidarity with oppressed peoples and care for the welfare of all humanity.  In fact, some people Tom has encountered while traveling through the world, sledgehammer in hand, have experienced that symbol as something quite different.  They see it, understandably, as a sign of power and strength that feels disconcerting, intimidating, even threatening.  They see it as a tool of disruption, destruction, even violence.

Tom is considering correcting this misunderstanding by painting his sledgehammer with rainbow colors in order to make it a little bit clearer that he is not going to use it to smash windows or break furniture or bash someone’s skull in…  But in the meantime, I think he can take heart, because Jesus was misunderstood, too.

In the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  They answered, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  Jesus followed it up:  “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

This is the first time in Mark’s gospel that anyone refers to Jesus by that title, but the name Messiah had deep roots.  It was a religious term that meant “anointed one,” the one chosen by God to lead God’s people and restore the fortunes of Israel.  It was not only a religious title; it had political and social implications as well.  The Messiah was the one who would defeat those who ruled unjustly.  He was the one who would restore kingship to the lineage ordained by God.  It was a big deal for Jesus to be called by that name, and it got him into trouble with the authorities.

Because when Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” what he meant was, “You are the one God has chosen to make all things right, to purify society, to defeat our enemies, to deliver us from oppression, to bring about a new realm of justice and peace.  You are the one who will turn our humiliation into triumph, our sorrow into song, our suffering into supremacy.  You are the one who will lead us to glorious victory.”

Peter and the other disciples—and the religious and political authorities of the day, too—thought Jesus would be a Messiah in the sense of a knight in shining armor, riding in on his white stallion, sword (or sledgehammer) in hand, smashing all the powers and principalities and giving the oppressors a taste of their own medicine.  Which, of course, was not how Jesus rolled.

Peter was quite right to call Jesus the Messiah.  But when it comes to what that title really means, Peter woefully misunderstood.

In this morning’s reading, just after Peter has named Jesus in this powerful and provocative way, Jesus speaks of suffering, and rejection, and death.  Resurrection, too—but first a terrible, torturous, ignominious death at the hands of the very authorities his disciples expected him to overturn.  Peter and his friends were hoping for a Messiah who would come in strength to save them from vulnerability.  And Jesus, as is his wont, says just the opposite.  He will come in vulnerability to save them—and us—from strength.

Because as long as we believe that strength is the answer, that our problems can be solved by a bigger weapon, a taller wall, a heavier sledgehammer, we will be captive to the logic of might-makes-right.  We will be seduced by the notion that the forces of sin and death can only be defeated by stronger, mightier forces—armies of angels, armed to the teeth.  We will be led astray by the medieval idea that victory for the powers of good must look like crushing defeat and utter devastation for the other side.  We will be trapped in the ever-escalating cycle of defense and offense that only leads to wasted life and pain for everyone.

As long as we believe that strength is the answer, that what ails us can be cured if only we work harder, or try harder, or pray harder, or wear ourselves to the bone trying to earn our own salvation, we will be misled by the illusion that we can bring about the Realm of God under our own steam and by our own power.  We will be distracted by the idol of independence that tells us that asking for help is a sign of weakness, that we ought to be able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, thank you very much.  We will be diverted down the dead-end path of works-righteousness, which tells us that there is no such thing as a free lunch, that love must be earned, that grace is a lie.

As long as we believe that strength is the answer, that God’s sovereignty looks just like our tangled, twisted human notions of power, we will find ourselves thinking that our times of struggle take us outside the bounds of God’s embrace.  We will find ourselves convinced that when we falter and fail, we will be judged unworthy.  We will find ourselves feeling that we are alone in our suffering—when the truth is anything but.

As long as we believe that strength is the answer, Jesus will continue to be misunderstood.  Because from beginning to end, the story of Jesus Christ is the story of a Messiah who saves through vulnerability, through solidarity, through what looks like weakness to our human eyes but turns out to be the strongest thing this world has ever known.  From beginning to end, the story of Jesus Christ is the story of a God who chooses freely to enter into fragile, frail, feeble, fallible, finite human life, because our broken-yet-beautiful humanity is so unspeakably holy in God’s sight.  From beginning to end, the story of Jesus Christ is the story of a God who voluntarily gives up omnipotent invulnerability to suffer with us so that we might learn how to transcend.

Graced by such a love, then, how can we who would be followers of Christ not do the same?  How can we help but turn toward, not away from, our siblings who suffer?  How can we keep from being in solidarity with all who are vulnerable and oppressed?  How can we not willingly give up our own comfort, our own ease, our own privilege, in order that all of God’s people might survive and flourish and thrive?

In other words, how can we help but take up our cross—joyfully, with abundant hope, with the same unquenchable love that we have received—how can we help but take up our cross and follow?



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