Lent 2 – February 28, 2021

Faith Lutheran Church

Isanti, MN

Grace to you all and peace from God our Creator, and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus shared these words with the crowd and his disciples immediately after the first of three times in the Gospel of mark when he predicts his suffering and resurrection. He had just told them that “ the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And what a shocking revelation for them to all hear! Peter was so shocked that HE rebuked Jesus! And that led Jesus to rebuke him, saying “Get behind me Satan!”

Jesus, the Messiah had told his followers that he would have to undergo suffering and death before rising again in glory. While it may simply the mystery of our faith that we repeat during the communion liturgy: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again– that was NOT something his followers, the disciples would have expected.

Jesus, the “son of man,” the Messiah in Jewish tradition was not going to be one who suffered, but rather was going to be a ruling king. One who overcame the other rulers and brought about a new age through might. So for Jesus to say that he would suffer, and die at the hands of the rulers of the day was unthinkable. One cannot fault Peter or the other disciples for their shock at hearing this.

And so turning to the crowds, Jesus presented them with the reality that if one was to follow him, they would necessarily encounter their own cross on that journey. There was no getting around that if they followed him. And for those earliest followers of Jesus, those crosses would have come in many and various forms.

Jesus in his life and actions worked in a way that was counter to the prevailing narrative. A narrative that expected subservience and allegiance to the ruling powers and principalities. Rather than allow his fellow people to suffer at the whims of those in power, he joined alongside them and brought about change through healing the sick, feeding the hungry and preaching a message of mutual love.

And while this all might sound idyllic–visualizing the images we have of Jesus in white robes with perfectly styled hair–Jesus lived the life of an itinerant preacher. He wandered from town to town, not knowing where his next meal would come from, not having a home to return to if the journey got too rough. Though this reality was known by the disciples, Jesus also looked forward beyond his labors to proclaim the good news. He recognized that the good news he proclaimed irritated those in power, and it would lead them to seek to kill him–resulting in his death on the cross.

And so he told the crowd and disciples where his life and ministry was headed. If they wished to follow him, that discipleship would naturally lead to suffering and pain–Their “crosses.” Not only as the end of their ministry, as in martyrdom, but also among the suffering of the communities and people that Jesus lived and worked on behalf of. Communities and places where his followers should find themselves following him. To hear that following Jesus would result in suffering, that isn’t a message everyone would get behind. It doesn’t sound like a very good deal.

Two thousand years following Jesus’ life and ministry, it seems as though the call to discipleship is as relevant as it was then. Humanity is still tied up in systems of powers and principalities that don’t want to relinquish power for the betterment of the people. And so we know of countless stories of leaders in faith who entered into the suffering of communities as means of following Jesus’ command to follow him.

One of those people from our recent history the church remembers is Oscar Romero, who was the bishop of El Salvador. Romero became bishop of El Salvador at a time when there was extreme unrest and civil war. Less than two weeks after his appointment, a fellow priest and close friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated because of his work creating self-reliance groups for the poor.  Grande’s death had a profound impact on Romero who said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”

Romero began speaking out openly against the human rights violations he witnessed, calling on the military and government to obey God’s higher order to love. Then on March 24, 1980 right after he finished a sermon and stepped up to the altar he was shot–assassinated. He had followed Grande, who in turn had followed Jesus among the poor and outcast, and as a result had taken up the cross of Christ in the form of martyrdom.

In the words of Black Theologian Howard Thurman, Romero followed Jesus not in order to suffer. But rather Romero chose to do the thing that brought him the maximum exposure to the love of God and therefore the approval of God, rather than the things that would have saved his own skin.

When Jesus speaks with the crowd and the disciples, he tells them to take up their cross and follow him. I wonder what it might mean if we hear these words in a slightly different way? I wonder what it might mean for us to “follow him, and take up our cross.” What happens when we change the order of those two things? For the disciples, those who were already following him, it would have been good news. They would be affirmed in their desire to follow after this wise teacher, this messiah.

For the crowd, those who weren’t following after Jesus, this would be an impetuous for their beginning to follow after him. That was the first step in discipleship, to follow. Yet, in this new order there is also honesty about what that discipleship would entail. Jesus ministry was among the poor and outcast, and to follow him meant following him to the places and spaces where there was suffering.

Yet in those places of suffering, that is where those followers would be able to recognize Jesus in his fullest, truest self. For it was in response to suffering that Jesus made himself most known to humanity. Through healing, and feeding, and loving.

In our lives, what would it mean for us to follow Jesus first, and then understand that our discipleship will necessarily result in engaging with suffering? Engaging with pain?

I believe it is good news. It is news that pushes back against the saying that something is “my cross to bear.” Pushes back against the ideas that in order to be followers of Jesus we need to experience suffering or pain. Womanist theologians such as Pamela Lightsey and Joann Terrell rightly remind us that there is no redemptive value in suffering. That is language that has kept many people in abusive or harmful relationships, and that is not the gospel.

The gospel, the good news is that just as Jesus entered our lives, was incarnate, was in a body among us, we too are called to be among those needing love and care. We are called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, love the outcast. And through following Jesus in that work, we will enter into pain and suffering:

The suffering of the 461,200 people in Minnesota experiencing hunger is something we are not to avoid by looking the other way, but we are to follow Jesus among those folks and work to bring relief.

The suffering of the more than 500,000 who have died from this pandemic by acknowledging that each of those who died were beloved by God and working to prevent further deaths through masking and getting vaccinated as we are able to save more lives.

The suffering of all those who are denied their humanity because of the identities they carry–people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, disabled folks–offering affirmation that they are created in the image and likeness of God.

As we all follow Jesus, we will find ourselves among the suffering of humanity in the many and various forms it takes. The Gospel is that in those places and spaces of suffering, that is when we are nearest to Jesus. That is when we are truly following him.

The book The Violence of Love is of quotations taken from sermons that Oscar Romer preached. While speaking to El Salvador in 1977, his words still resonate with me today. I pray that they will resonate with you also. Romero preached,

“When we struggle for human rights,

for freedom,

for dignity,

when we feel that it is a ministry of the church

to concern itself for those who are hungry,

for those who are deprived,

we are not departing from God’s promise.

He comes to free us from sin,

and the church knows that sin’s consequences

are all such injustices and abuses.

The church knows it is saving the world

when it undertakes to speak also of such things.”

As we enter into the suffering of the world, following Jesus, may we do so with the understanding that we are working alongside the Christ to engender, to bring about the healing of the world. Amen.