Sunday, February 25, 2024

Second Sunday in Lent

“Taking Up The Cross”
– Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 8:27-38, NRSVUE)

“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says to the crowd with his disciples.

The cross is perhaps the single most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith. We look at it up there every week, but how often do we think about what it really means to do as Jesus says — to take up the cross and follow him?

On the morning of October 2, 2006, Carl Charles Roberts IV, a 33-year-old milkman from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, left his two eldest children at their school bus stop and headed off to the local hardware store. A short time later, Roberts walked into a tiny Amish schoolhouse in the small town of Nickel Mines and then, after inexplicably ordering most of the building’s youngest occupants to leave, he shot ten schoolgirls, killing five of them before turning his gun on himself and taking his own life.

In a post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech, post-Newtown, post-Parkland, post-Uvalde society in which such incidents have, tragically, become fairly frequent occurrences (as evidenced by the fact that I could stand up here for an hour and probably not be able read the names of all the schools in which shootings have taken place since the turn of the millenium).

But the Nickel Mines school incident stands out as being particularly horrific. Not only was it directed at children, but it was also inflicted upon a community that had chosen to live outside of mainstream American society and all its perceived ills — including gun violence.

And yet what seemed to disorient people most of all was the unexpected reaction of the families directly affected by it and of the Amish community as a whole: They actually forgave Roberts — both in word and in deed.

On the evening right after the massacre took place, a stream of Amish visitors visited Roberts’ widow and children at their home to express condolences for their loss. They reminded them they were still part of — and welcome in — the community. About half of the seventy or so attendees at Roberts’ funeral were Amish. The Amish community’s committee overseeing the distribution of charitable donations set-up and funded a trust for Roberts’ family. That Christmas, a group of Amish went to the Roberts house to sing carols. The following spring, Roberts’ family members planted a tree in the yard of the new Amish schoolhouse constructed on the site of the massacre.

The world was absolutely stunnedby the Amish response to what had happened. And when the capacity to forgive is any where near as difficult for us to comprehend as is an unconscionable act of violence, may God help us all.

I think that part of what made the Amish way of dealing with the Nickel Mines tragedy incomprehensible to many people was that it seemed so contrary to human nature. When we’re attacked, in any way, our first impulse is, all too often, to strike back. When someone injures our loved one we hope to stop them but we often also wish to hurt them: You hit me or mine and I hit you back even harder. Turning the other cheek is generally neither our intuitive nor our instinctual response, but it is definitely Jesus’ response. And it’s a difficult one to come to terms with — both for Peter and for us.

At the beginning of our reading for today, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, as usual, is quick with a response that is accurate but also one that shows he doesn’t really understand the implications of what he’s saying: “You are the Messiah,” he tells Jesus. This, of course, is true, but Peter and Jesus have very different ideas about what being the Messiah actually means.

When Jesus proceeds to tell his disciples about what is going to happen to him next — when he declares that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,” they simply cannot process it. To their way of thinking, the Messiah is supposed to be the one who arrives in a cloud of fire and fury to beat the Imperial Roman oppressors and their co-conspirators into submission; he’s supposed to be the one who punishes them for all their transgressions. The Messiah is not the one who is supposed to suffer and be killed; he is supposed to make them suffer for what they’ve done to us! This is why Peter rebukes Jesus here.

Jesus, of course, is having none of it. He instantly yells back at Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He is clearly angry at Peter and at Satan — the latter, of course, being the Biblical tempter extraordinaire. But might Jesus also be a little frustrated with himself for being tempted?

If the gospels are to be believed, Jesus clearly has the power to do all sorts of things that the rest of us cannot; he can cure illnesses and exorcize demons, he can walk on water, he can feed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. So it would have been well within his power to bring all sorts of calamity upon the powers that be, were he inclined to do so.

And, in some sense, it would have been so much easier for him had he done this — had he simply brought the thunder and the lightning, and then walked away unscathed. It had to be so tempting for him to do this. But it also wouldn’t have changed a thing. And, at the end of the day, Jesus understands this; I wish we did too.

Because there is nothing — and I mean nothing — redemptive about violence. And violence — even in response to violence — simply begets a culture whose entire foundation is violence. This is the world that Jesus found himself living in two thousand years ago and, sadly, it’s the one we still find ourselves living in today.

This is truly tragic because, while revenge and retribution may be vaguely satisfying for a brief moment, in the long run, they only serve to perpetuate a vicious cycle of human suffering. The idea of an “eye for an eye” might sound applealing in theory to some, but in practice you always just end up with a whole bunch of people who can’t see.

And so Jesus — though he certainly could do otherwise — chooses instead to say “no more.” He changes the rules of the game to highlight how stupid and useless and dangerous the game actually is. He offers up himself as the violent sacrifice to end all violent sacrifice. He grits his teeth, overcomes the temptation to do the easy thing, and resumes his march toward the impending horror of the cross hoping to save us from ourselves by showing us that there is another way.

The urge for Jesus to just walk away from it all doesn’t go away — because dealing with that urge is part of being human; and, as we all know, being human isn’t easy. At Gethsemane, Jesus will beg God, “remove this cup from me.” But he will soon change his mind, going on to say, “not what I want, but what you want.”

Think for a moment about how difficult that pivot must have been for Jesus. But his love for us was greater than his concern for himself unto the very end — “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” says Jesus from the cross in Luke’s version of the story. In spite of all we put him through, in spite of all we did to him, in spite of all we put each other through, in spite of all we do to each other, Jesus chooses to repay us with forgiveness.

While this particular passage of the Mark’s Gospel is essential to defining what it really means to be a follower of Christ, it is also one of the Bible’s most dangerous texts. Throughout the centuries, it has been used to condone and perpetuate all kinds of flawed systems and bad behavior; it has been a prooftext utilized to justify everything from slavery to domestic violence. The twisted interpretation of it being: “Suck it up and deal with it.” So let me be clear: taking up the cross does not mean tolerating abuse. Not now, not ever. Because violence — in whatever form it takes — is never, ever, ever redemptive. That’s the whole point!

Christ endured what he did in the hope that we might never again have to endure it. He did it to overthrow the existing order of violence and retribution, not to perpetuate it.

Christ suffered and then forgave to show us that there was, in fact, another way. And following that way is what taking up the cross really means. It is not about suffering for its own sake, for there is no virtue in that. Nor is it about being a doormat; we are called by Christ to stand up to injustice and to violence of all kinds whenever and wherever we experience these things.

We can’t simply forget all the evil that we do to each other; indeed, we shouldn’t ever forget it, because if we forget it we can’t learn from it and then move beyond it. But forgiveness is not necessarily a pardon. Wrongs should be punished; there should be consequences to our actions. If Carl Charles Roberts IV had not taken his own life, the Amish community would probably have been fine with him spending the rest of his days on this earth in jail. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t forgive him.

In the end, forgiveness, might be best thought of as the capacity to live into the promise of our common humanity in spite of all we do to separate ourselves from one another (and from God).

May the cross serve not merely as decoration, but rather as a reminder of what we are capable of on our worst possible days and of what we are capable of on our best possible days, a call to look into the eyes of the one who has wronged us and say I forgive you as God has forgiven me. 

Every single week we pray to God, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Do we really mean it? Because that’s what it means to pick up our cross and follow Christ. The question for us is whether we are actually willing to do so.