Do any of you read the comic strip “Frazz” in the Seattle Times? In a recent strip, Frazz, the school custodian, is talking with a young student. The student says, “So I’d rather let the extra-credit opportunity slide. I like life to be comfortable and easy. You know what that makes me? Normal! Right?” Frazz: “It does not make you exceptional.” Student: “Exac… Hey. Stop that.” (Frazz by Jef Mallett for February 19, 2021 - GoComics)
In this reading today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus starts laying out how bad it’s going to get: he will suffer greatly, “be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Peter pulls him aside and tells him to knock it off. They’ve been going from town to town in Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing. It’s been good. Better than good—it’s been amazing, life-giving, and transformative. This kind of talk is alarming and not, perhaps, what the disciples thought they were signing up for. Like the student in the “Frazz” comic strip, Peter wants to skip the extra credit, especially if it involves great suffering, rejection, and death. He would prefer to have Jesus’ ministry be comfortable and easy, to stay small-scale, to avoid the attention of the high priests, and certainly to avoid death at the hands of the state. Come on, Jesus, can’t we just be normal, not exceptional?
Jesus responds with what may seem like an overreaction. He turns away from Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Whoa!
What are these divine things that we’re supposed to be setting our minds on? Jesus is saying that following God’s call will take everything you have, even your life. But your life will have meaning if you live it to that ultimate purpose. Jesus is ready to pay that ultimate price.
Lent is a time to draw closer to God, to spend time in prayer, and then, out of that centered space, to step out and do something that matters, something that will take your whole life and be worth it. To do something exceptional. This is Prospect’s time of discernment. What will that next thing be for us? Some other ways to say that: What is life-giving to our community? What is worth living for? What gives our lives meaning? And perhaps we might even say, if we’re feeling exceptional, like Jesus, what is worth dying for?
A clergy colleague asked, “How does this text preach to the people we serve?” And I got the sense that he didn’t want to push his congregation out of their comfort zone. They come to church to fill up on Spirit, to know they are loved, to know they are forgiven for whatever they have done wrong. We come for those reasons. And those are great reasons to come. We come to see our friends, to share prayers, to sing. But if we don’t also expect Jesus to challenge us, to call us to give our whole selves in the service of God, then we are just a social club.
It is, frankly, tempting to be just a social club. But there is too much of God’s work waiting to be done in the world. Lives depend on justice being done. People are hungry, cold, homeless, sick, oppressed, in prison, trying to immigrate to escape from gangs. We live in a world that has racism, a rising human population, depleting resources, climate change, and a pandemic. It is tempting to live a comfortable, small life that doesn’t attract too much attention, doesn’t rock the boat too much. Sure, maybe a rally here and there, some letters to our legislators. I personally would like that to be enough. I like setting my mind on human things. I like living in my comfort zone. Maybe you do, too. That makes us normal.
And what an opportunity these challenges provide for us to be Church. To be Church as Church was always meant to be. To do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. To love our neighbors of all kinds. To take on the extra credit, the exceptional challenge, even if it means stepping away from our comfort zone, our caste, our other plans. Yikes.
The pandemic has certainly interrupted life and made us step away from our comfort zone and our other plans. And in this time, opportunities have arisen to serve in new ways. Some of you have sewn masks, or found creative and safe ways to keep feeding the hungry. Doctors and nurses have found ways to don PPE and continue to provide life-saving medical care. And some have found ways to bear witness or to serve even as they wrestled with this virus. In this Black Lives Matter time, an African-American doctor who tested positive used social media to document how her pain and suffering was discredited because of her race, even though her medical expertise meant she knew exactly what was happening to her. And she died, but her witness to discrimination stands as a testament to the racism embedded in our society and points a way for us to do better. That is exceptional.
A priest was in the hospital with COVID-19 last year. He heard that there was a shortage of ventilators and chose to give up his ventilator so that someone else could have it. He died so that someone else could live. That is certainly exceptional.
We’re talking these days about how God could use what we have in our hands. Did either of these people expect to give their lives in this way? No. And yet they gave themselves completely to the moment to do whatever they could.
Sometimes what we have in our hands is money, time, and the will to do something good. A man found out that there had been illness in a household and decided to take over some food. It’s what I call the ministry of tuna hot dish, and some of you are truly exceptional at this ministry. In his case, he was picking up deli at the store. He called the family, got some ideas of what they would like. But when he went to the grocery store, he must have been seized with joy at the idea of providing for this family, because by the time he showed up at their house he had enough food to feed everyone not just for a meal but for about four days: salad, chicken, ham, potatoes, green beans, cookies—lots of cookies and chocolate. And he was beaming. Serving this family was not just some duty but a delight. What extravagant love and welcome, for that family to be seen and known and cared for in this way.
We can serve in such one-on-one ways. And we can serve in ways that take on whole systems of oppression, which is what Jesus appears to be talking about here. Martin Luther King, Jr., was told by White clergy that he was moving too fast, rocking the boat too much. The Antiracism Book Group just finished reading the book Caste. We see now that King was stepping out of his assigned caste, and that made the White people nervous. Because whether they couched the Civil Rights Movement in terms of caste or race, they knew there was going to be a price to pay to treat all people equally. And by price I mean that equality is a threat to those who have been in the dominant caste, and some of them are going to push back violently. People will get hurt or even killed. That’s the price. We know that King did pay the ultimate price, as did many, many Black people who participated in sit-ins, marches, and bus boycotts. They were beaten, set on by police dogs, fire hoses, and more. There was also a price for White allies. I remember hearing of one White pastor who joined a march. When he came home, he no longer had a job. His own church told him that this justice work was too uncomfortable, too much, too far. Perhaps Jesus’ words rang in that pastor’s head as he took in the news: “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things—this screaming need for justice and equality—but on human things—your own discomfort with the whole topic of racism.”
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So it’s not just about coming up with a bold plan that may require sacrifice and risk. It’s about denying oneself, taking up the cross, and following. Let’s unpack those three things.
Denying oneself doesn’t mean denying your value, denying your gifts and talents, denying that God loves you. It’s more about getting ego out of the way. And getting fear out of the way, too. Deny your fears—or work through them—and deny your need for the world to revolve around you.
Take up the cross. For Jesus of course this is literal. For us, “take up the cross” could mean we are to find what gives our life meaning, what we could live for, and what we could die for.
“Follow Jesus.” That is the lens through which we are taking up the cross. We find something worth living or dying for that serves God and that follows in the path of Jesus. Something that is not driven by our own fears or ego.
When I think of the challenges of our time, it is tempting to dwell on human things: making sure my family has enough, keeping safe as the world erupts in chaos. We are called to be the Church, a voice that cries out for love and justice in the midst of greed. What world do we want to live in? How do we see it fueled by God’s love, even in the midst of challenges? How does God make use of what we have in our hands? We can dwell on human things and be a small, comfortable church. Or we can put what we have in our hands to serve God, and see what comes. It will be exceptional. In this period of discernment, we have invited all of you to participate in small-group discussions on Zoom to share what you have in your hands and any role that Prospect might play in putting our gifts to use to serve God. Let us participate with joy. What comes out of these discussions could lead us in ways that could indeed be exceptional. Amen.