Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he (Jesus) will be killed in Jerusalem. Peter pulls him to one side: “C’mon, Jesus, you’re freaking out the disciples.” Jesus, who is known to speak in parables and riddles, looks at the disciples first and then says clearly and unambiguously, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Which seems like an extreme response.
And then Jesus says whoever wants to follow him must take up their cross—their cross, the thing that is designed to kill them—and follow. Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of Jesus and God and justice will gain it.
“Uh huh. How does that work, exactly?” say the disciples. “If we save our lives we lose them? Because we basically have no idea what you’re talking about.”
There’s a lot to unpack in these two little paragraphs of scripture. Here are some of the questions that arise for me as I look at this text:
We’ve got our work cut out for us!
We’ve grown up knowing that this story ends with Jesus being crucified in Jerusalem and then resurrected. It’s easy to forget that the disciples didn’t know that’s how things were going to go. In the paragraph before this passage, Jesus is asking the disciples who they think he is, and Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Score one for Peter. But according to prophesy, the Messiah is going to be a great ruler, do away with oppressors—in other words, kick some butt with great military might. There is no talk in the prophecies about the Messiah being put to death. Hence Peter’s confusion and pushback when Jesus starts saying he will be killed by those in power in Jerusalem. Peter is saying, “Wait a minute: that’s not what we signed up for. That’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”
This is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Up until now he has been preaching and teaching and healing in Galilee, far north of Jerusalem. Now he and his disciples are going to head to the big city for Passover. Jesus foresees trouble. Peter isn’t yet quite with the program.
Seeing what needs to be done to speak up for justice, even despite the potential consequences, and then doing it—that takes a lot of courage. It takes a willingness to rethink how one’s life is going to go. A willingness to let go of the life you thought you were going to have—the safe, tidy, comfortable little life—and give yourself over to the greater cause. When Jesus says we must lose our lives in order to gain them, he is challenging us to keep setting our minds on divine things. Sure, it’s tempting to think of making a comfortable salary, having a nice house, putting money away for retirement, having the 2.1 children and the dog, etc. But Jesus cautions about selling our souls in the process. When we focus on having that comfortable life, what are we willing to sacrifice to get it? Do we sell our souls in the process? Are we ignoring those in our community or around the world who are pushed to the margins, oppressed, victimized? I plead guilty—how about you?
Here’s a more extreme example: When the fossil fuel company executives buy politicians and make it their aim to dig up every last ounce of fuel—even in national parks, even if it means destroying the water supply for whole communities—those executives have sold their souls. They have stopped setting their minds on divine things and the greater good; they see only opportunities to make tons of money at the expense of other people and at the expense of a healthy planet. A few years ago this church divested its endowment fund from such companies. Just in the last month or so we have shifted our church bank account away from Bank of America, which helps fund the construction of fossil fuel projects such as pipelines. This is a step that all of us can take: refuse to fund fossil fuel projects through our banks.
But back to those fossil fuel company executives. Jesus says, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” If they gain every ounce of fossil fuel, every last dollar in the whole world, but they lose their soul in the process . . . they lose the one thing they have that is of any worth, and Jesus is ashamed of them.
There are ways in which all of us may choose to live small when God and the world need us to fling ourselves 100% into the work, regardless of the consequences. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow. Follow, even if it kills us.
Someone I know summed up Christianity as teaching people they should be nice to each other. It is much more than that. It is about being willing to die out of love for our neighbor and love of justice. That’s a hard message to hear, let alone follow. No wonder Peter said, “Hold on there, Jesus.”
God invites us to live wild, radical, fully-ourselves lives. To push ourselves to be the best selves we can possibly be, and to put those very best selves in service of the greater good. Not fame and fortune, not self-aggrandizement, but the greater good. I think that’s what Jesus was figuring out during his 40 days in the wilderness: getting his priorities straight on who exactly he was going to serve. Lent is our 40 days for considering that same thing: whom do we serve? Which life are we going to choose to lead?
The cross represents the worst-case scenario of what could happen when we truly commit to following Jesus.
What if we had faith that our God would be there for us even in that worst-case scenario, even when we felt like we were in over our heads? What if we put ourselves out there repeatedly in the service of the greater good, even when that wasn’t the popular thing to do? What if we weren’t afraid to commit, to jump off that high-dive?
In the past ten days, we have been hearing teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School fearlessly take on the president, Congress, their state legislature, and the NRA on the issue of gun control. They have called these leaders out on lies that regularly put the lives of our children and teachers on the line. They are getting pushback from people who have convinced themselves that it is more important for a 19-year-old to be able to buy an AR-15 without a background check than for 17 students and teachers to still be breathing. That’s what it comes down to. These passionate, traumatized, articulate teenagers are telling their nation’s leaders that the leaders have sold their souls to the NRA. That takes this kind of “Jesus courage”: to march into the center of the authorities and stand up for justice for the victims no matter what. Even in today’s Seattle Times, there is an editorial by a 14-year-old named Anabel Moore from Woodinville High School, who writes,
How can I know what will happen when a misfit student is expelled? Will that student buy a semi-automatic rifle? Legally? How can I know that it won’t be my innocent friends who are next?
For too long, the adults in charge have said, “We’ll do it tomorrow, next month, next term,” said that the issue of gun control is so multifaceted, constitutionally and politically complex, so conflicting we’ll just leave things be.
On behalf of all students: your due date is here. Change needs to be turned in not tomorrow, but today. [Seattle Times, February 25, 2018, https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/it-could-have-been-us-3000-miles-from-florida-a-14-year-olds-plea/.]
How do we follow that kind of lead? Many of us, myself included, are significantly more timid than these teens. So how do we move forward with faith, take risks, dare to make some noise? It turns out that our state attorney general, Bob Ferguson, has a suggestion. He has proposed Senate Bill 5444 and its House companion Bill 1387, which would extend our current restrictions on hand gun purchases to assault weapons. Background checks. Waiting period. Minimum age of 21. Some common-sense steps. These bills haven’t gone anywhere. I propose that one thing we can do is make some noise, call our legislators and tell them this matters.
Here’s how we follow Jesus: We keep listening for where and how God is calling us to serve. Peter was not good at listening to the whole message. He’d hear half of it and be ready to flail ahead without understanding what the task at hand actually required. So we listen.
We trust. We say yes. God tells Abraham and Sarah many times that they will have a child, that they will have more descendants than there are grains of sand or stars in the heavens. They wait many years for this covenant promise to come true and are so old that they laugh even at the possibility of having a baby at their age. What could have been their quiet, wealthy, comfortable old age is knocked on its head by parenthood. Who wants to become a mother at age 90, be chasing around a toddler at 92? Yikes. But they laugh, and then they do it. Of course, there’s more to the story than that—go back to Genesis and read the whole soap opera. But throughout their lives, they keep setting their minds on God and God’s covenant with them.
We keep setting our minds on divine things. We listen. We trust. We say yes. When Michael Foster learned about climate change, he felt called to do everything he could think of to create a healthier planet for future generations. He loved to work with kids, so he got involved with Plant for the Planet, which teaches kids about climate change and how we need to plant a gazillion trees to offset the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. These kids learn how to be spokespeople—spokeskids—for the health of the planet. They are very articulate.
Michael is a gentle person, soft-spoken, nonviolent, and determined. With Emily Johnston and others, he helped found 350 Seattle, which has its offices up on our third floor. Eventually a small group of people, including Michael, realized that if they truly wanted to get the attention of the fossil fuel industry, they had to do something more radical than write letters, make phone calls, or show up at rallies and hearings. They had to shut off the flow of fossil fuels from Canada to the U.S. So five of them planned and trained to do this. They spread out: one in Washington, one in Montana, Michael in North Dakota, and Emily and another woman in Minnesota—all locations where pipelines bring crude Canadian tar sands oil into the U.S. On October 11, 2016, they used wire cutters to cut through fences, and they turned wheels on the pipelines to shut them off. Then they called the authorities and notified them that they had done this, and they waited for someone to show up.
They all went to court in the states where they committed this act. Ken Ward, the one who acted here in Washington, was tried twice, and no one wanted to convict him. He got maybe some community service time. Community service—that is kind of what he was trying to do to begin with—serve the greater good. Emily and her partner are still awaiting trial. And Michael got a three-year sentence with two years suspended. He is now serving his one year in a North Dakota prison. When people say, “What’s your address so we can write you letters of support? How can we help you?” He says, “Don’t worry about me. Write your legislators. You take action now. Fight this fight for the greater good of our species and our planet.”
You may not agree with either his cause or his tactics. That’s fine. What I hope you can see is how he answered his call to take action knowing the potential consequences and accepting them. He may have been afraid. I imagine he was. No one chooses to go to prison as a fun thing. He’s apart from his family, his job, his regular tidy little life. No doubt this is a financial hit for him and his family. It’s not convenient or easy. And he’s doing it anyway.
Each of us is called to take up our own particular cross and follow Jesus. Each of us is called to live an engaged, passionate, full life in service to the people and world around us.
I mentioned at the start of Lent that we are focusing on the poetry of Mary Oliver, and this poem came to mind for today. It’s called “Mornings at Blackwater,” and I suggest that the use of the words “citizen” and “world” invite us to engage as fully as possible wherever our God is calling us to serve the greater good.
For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
[Mary Oliver, “Mornings at Blackwater,” Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 102.]
Set your minds on divine things. Say yes. Put your lips to the world, darling citizen. And live the wild, wonderful, dangerous life to which God calls you. Amen.