A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: 2nd Sunday of Lent Sermon: “The Challenge of the Cross”

2nd Sunday of Lent Sermon: “The Challenge of the Cross”

February 25, 2024

come-share-in-god's-joy

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That message is just as difficult for most of us to accept as it was for Peter. 

It’s hard to blame him.  Peter had a front row seat to Jesus’ healings and miracles, a demonstration of power like nothing he had ever seen before, a power so great  he hoped it would ultimately be used to end Roman rule.

Like other Jews in first century Palestine, Peter seems to hold the prevailing view that the Messiah would come and lead a military triumph, routing the Roman occupiers and restoring the Davidic monarchy.

But, notice that Jesus does not  want  Mark to use the title, Messiah.  Instead, Jesus refers to himself as Son of Man, or as some interpreters suggest, Child of Humanity. 

Peter seems to want Jesus to Make Israel Great Again. 

Jesus rebukes this idea. Unequivocally. “Get behind me Satan.”

His path is not about power over others, but solidarity with them. It is not about conquest,  but service. It is not about ignoring others who are in pain and suffering, but coming alongside them.    It is not about preferencing strength over weakness, but compassion towards weakness.   It is not about taking up arms –  no matter how noble a cause –  but putting them down.    It is not about gaining the world, but having life in abundance.  

The path of Jesus is no easier now than it was 2000 years ago.

And many – even those who call themselves Christians – Still.  Don’t.  Understand. 

Peter was half-right.  He recognized that Jesus was the Christ.    What he misunderstood was what being the Christ actually means. It’s not about military power. It’s not about political power.  But, it is about people power- the power to love – especially to love those who are suffering at the hands of misguided political and religious leaders. It’s about witnessing to those who are targeted because they dare speak up to corrupt powers. And it’s about the courage to show up and speak up even when it is dangerous to do so.

After Alexei Navalny died, many asked “Why did he go back to Russia when he knew what would likely happen?” 

A few weeks before he died, Navalny wrote, “I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs. I cannot betray either the first or the second. If your beliefs are worth something,   you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.” (NYTimes)

A man of faith, Alexei Navalny took up his cross.

In this presidential election year, it is incumbent upon us to pay attention to how Christian faith is being used and misused by those who hold and seek power.   We have examples in Russia (Putin also claims to be Christian) and we have examples here.  We can ask: “Is a person’s proclamation of faith serving their political ends,  or is their involvement in politics serving the priorities of Jesus?”

Jesus knew what it was to be caught in the crosshairs of political strife.  Peter and many of his other followers would have followed Jesus into battle against Roman rule, if he had led them in that direction. 

But, Jesus had a dramatically different perspective: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And – “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

The agenda of Jesus is not political power, nor worldly gain.   His path begins with drawing close to those who suffer and are in pain.  Matthew Myer Boulton notes: “In (the Gospel of) Mark, Jesus’ path is a way of humility, healing, and liberation, not grasping, dominance, and destruction.”

For Mark, discipleship is not some comfortable affiliation with Jesus, a kind of private club, but a life-changing—and potentially life-threatening—commitment to him and his mission. (Ira Brent Diggers)

Often when I make dinner, I listen to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” On Thursday night there was a story that jolted me. For nearly 40 years, Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas has been assisting migrants, often (actually) coordinating with Border Patrol.  Ken Paxton, the Attorney General, who rose to power promoting his fundamentalist Christian ideas, is suing to shut them down, accusing them of “alien harboring, human smuggling and operating a stash house (which is a place where weapons, drugs, illegal aliens, or illegal items are hidden or stored),” which they deny.  

El Paso Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz says the church stands in solidarity with nonprofits doing this work. He called the Paxton lawsuit an affront to Christian values and said that we need to “recognize the humanity of the people that we’re dealing with that are not just pawns in this political game.”

If Jesus were at the border, what do you think he would be doing?

To be a follower of Jesus is not a passive stance or an aggressive stance, but active participation in his mission. It is not about trying to get God to satisfy our agendas, personal or political, but about getting behind Jesus and his agenda.

Like the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva, Jesus is willing to go wherever people are in pain or suffering.  Able people can not follow Jesus from our couches.  Or from our screens.  We must go to the types of places he went… where people are hurting, hungry, imprisoned, unwell, grieving, and cast out. And like Jesus, we are called to be present, to listen, to love.

The Christian life isn’t about being comfortable, but being willing to risk our comfort out of love for someone else.

The Christian life isn’t about being powerful, but bearing witness to those without power.

The Christian life isn’t about being great, but about giving greatly – even being willing to sacrifice so someone else can live.

Herein lies the mystery.  When we do these things, we find life in abundance.

Richard Rohr writes, “Out of love for (us), God is always present—not causing chaos but entering into it, not sending calamity but suffering through it, not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, the incarnate and crucified God is there.”

The Christian life is not necessarily easy or convenient. We are asked to stretch beyond our comfort zones. But, we are not asked to do this alone.  We have the greatest power there is – God’s spirit.  And we have each other.  There is a reason Jesus sent his disciples out two by two.

Justine McCoy, a volunteer at Annunciation House reflects, “Living in solidarity with our asylum-seeking guests helps us to see each of them as a “fellow traveler.” Welcoming new people, day after day, each with unique and often complex needs, can make a volunteer weary. But as each new seeker comes to our door, we find ourselves energized, eager to meet a new personality or a new family of personalities. 

We list them on our records by their nationalities, but as we live together with each of them for a few days – eating, cleaning, and working together to help them to travel onward – we get to know them as friends, not as people from foreign countries. Working side by side, brushing our teeth at the same sink, laughing together, empathizing – these create bonds…

Too commonly, (she says) North Americans see “migrants” as a faceless mob, but it’s a different experience meeting someone face-to-face and hearing their story.  Bureaucrats can more easily treat migrants as political pawns when they view them narrowly as numbers or statistics. At Annunciation House, we view migrants as people, guests, and friends. Therefore, we feel moved to provide for their wellbeing in a human and humane way.

Working at a welcoming shelter and meeting the migrants who come to us is a privilege. I have learned that there is always a larger table, another place to sleep, a little more food to share. Sometimes someone will step in to personally assist and encourage me to “go take a rest.” Many times, that someone is an asylum seeker who cares about my welfare and wants to help.” (pause)

Justine understands “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The upside down message of Lent is this – it is by giving ourselves to others – generously and whole-heartedly – that we discover our true selves. 

You and I may not be called to the border.  (We probably aren’t.) But, we are called with others – as part of the Christian family, as part of this community –  to open our eyes, open our hearts, and to be willing to stretch and sacrifice out of love for people in need, trusting that the Crucified One is with us as we do this. 

The cross challenges us to get behind Jesus to follow in his ways, not to use his name for our ways. It is the ultimate test for anyone who dares to call themselves Christian.  Amen.