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February 28, 2021
Second Sunday in Lent
A year ago last week, Ahmaud Arbrey – a young black man, was out jogging when he was pursued and fatally shot by three white men. In a couple of weeks, we will mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, who was killed by white plainclothes police officers.
As people called for justice in both of these cases, tensions built up. They reached their breaking point when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis at the end of May last year. Protests erupted all over the world – not just for these three murders, but for the inequity that people of color have experienced globally for hundreds of years.
Many of the people who incited violence last summer were not legitimate protestors and, unfortunately, they detracted from the message that people were seeking to convey. But that doesn’t mean justice and equity for people of color aren’t needed – because they certainly are.
When it comes to living into our faith, a lot of us try to do it in ways that are safe and maintain some level of comfort for ourselves. We do the bare minimum because we don’t like feeling unsettled or uncomfortable. We want it to fit in a nice, neat, little box so that we can feel safe and secure.
But the faith Jesus calls us to live into kicks the box to the curb. It’s honest and raw. It asks us to get our hands dirty and put ourselves out there for the sake of others. It’s anything but comfortable. And that’s what he was getting at in today’s gospel reading.
The teaching of Jesus we hear today takes place in about the year 30. He and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi which, at that time, was the center of worship of the Roman emperor and also of the Greek god, Pan. It wasn’t a place that was friendly to the God of Israel.
It was in that place that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who are people saying that I am?” and “Who are you saying that I am?” Dangerous questions to ask about leadership and status if it potentially went against Rome. So it was risky for Peter to answer, “You are the Messiah – the Promised One.”
And he and the other disciples all had an idea of what they hoped that meant about Jesus. That he would be some military-type hero who would lead an uprising and overthrow the Roman government and put things back the way they thought they ought to be.
Jesus would lead an uprising, but it wasn’t the one everyone thought it would be. And it didn’t lead to an overthrow of Rome. As he taught the disciples what it would actually lead to, it was a lot for them to take in. Peter told him as much.
And Jesus told Peter, “Stop it!” and went on to teach what all of this meant for his followers. And it, also, wasn’t what everyone thought it would be. And Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us this, but if Peter’s reaction is any indication – my guess is that the rest of the disciples began to feel very uncomfortable.
Because they knew that what Jesus was teaching was the beginning of an action on their part that would continue into generations beyond theirs. It was the beginning of a way of living according to the values of God’s realm. A way of living that sometimes means being uncomfortable for the sake of others.
We know that Jesus sought out the people who had been cast aside by society. But he did more than just share a meal with them, which was a radical act on its own. He paid attention to who they were – to what their lives were like and how they’d come to be that way. And he called attention to it and demanded better for them – ultimately demanding better for everyone.
It made a lot of people very uncomfortable. But in their discomfort, Jesus’ followers discovered the truth of what it means to take up one’s cross – that it means examining one’s own values and asking whether they’re in line with God’s values. That it may mean shifting or letting go of one’s values in order to live according to those of God. And letting go of what others might think in order to live into those values.
Jesus never indicated that this would be comfortable or easy. In fact, because he used the imagery of taking up one’s cross, he as much as said that it would be a difficult way to live.
When we talk today about what it means to take up one’s cross, it often gets reduced to bearing an unpleasant burden in life like having to work at a bad job or getting your feelings hurt. In reality, though, as people who follow Jesus – taking up your cross is the journey we undertake when we commit to live out the values of God’s realm in our world.
It means recognizing that, in Jesus, God calls us into honest relationship – with God and with one another. God calls us to be authentic in our interactions, to pay attention to the suffering going on around us and to declare that it isn’t okay. That there’s never any justification for it.
God calls us to recognize our part in it – known or unknown, and to acknowledge our wrongdoing. God calls us to repent of that and to understand that, in the same way our healing – our salvation – is connected to that of others, it’s also connected to the suffering that others endure.
God calls us to understand that when others suffer – for any reason – we all suffer because none of us is able to fully be the person God created us to be.
This honest relationship that God calls us into is unsettling and will often make us feel uncomfortable. It’s a relationship of trust that we live into in faith. It’s the relationship that brings healing to us as individuals and to the whole community of God.
When we think about this in terms of something like the events of last summer, or the lack of affordable housing in our area, or the increase in need for services like food banks and hold it together with knowing that being in honest relationship with God and one another is an ongoing action, we come to understand that as people who follow Jesus, we have our work cut out for us.
And that work is more than just advocating for racial justice and affordable housing and making sure people have enough to eat. It includes asking the tougher questions about why all of these inequities were allowed to take root in the first place. And doing the work of making it right no matter how long it takes.
And “making it right” means acknowledging the wrongs that have been done by us as individuals and as a community – as a society – so that things can genuinely be put right, allowing us to move forward together.
It’s uncomfortable work. But in that discomfort everyone receives life. That’s where the grace is.
The relationship God calls us into is one that asks us to be honest with ourselves, with one another, and with God. But our temptation is always to play it safe, to be comfortable. With God’s help, that’s what we push back against every day.
And as that relationship deepens, we are strengthened to do the difficult, uncomfortable work of living into God’s values. And we find that ultimately, it brings healing to us as individuals and to the whole community of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.