[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018 (Lent II, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minneapolis]
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Mark 8:33 (NRSV)
I wasn’t always this tall and good looking.
There was a time when I was quite a bit shorter and, let’s just say, my appearance was a “work in progress.” And not to excuse it, but as kids are figuring out their way in the world and learning the what it means to live in community, sometimes those interactions involve hurting others. Bullying is not a new phenomenon and while we might suggest that “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never me,” the truth is quite different. Words do hurt. Immensely. Particularly when you are in a vulnerable space of self-discovery.
One time, while playing with my friends on the playground, an older, more popular boy came up to me and began making fun of my shoes. I grew up in a house where my parents worked incredibly hard to provide for three young boys. This often meant that our clothes weren’t brand name and were more often than not hand-me-downs. It never occurred to me that this was not the norm until kids began making fun of me for it. I remember feeling small, worthless, and sad.
When my cousins and I went back to my grandmother’s house where we were visiting for the summer, she looked at me and could tell that something had happened.
“What’s wrong, Marcus?” she asked as she stirred a pot of spaghetti.
“Nothing,” I mumbled.
“I don’t think you’re telling me the truth,” she said.
“The kids were telling me that I am poor,” I responded.
She paused for a moment as if trying to process both incredible rage and profound sadness. “Don’t let them worry you, Marcus. Kids make fun of other kids because they are sad themselves. You don’t do the same back to them. You treat ‘em right anyhow. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
On February 1, 1960, Jibreel Khazan, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, four African American students from North Carolina A&T State University entered Woolworth’s Department Store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina and asked to be served. They were refused and asked to leave, but they remained in their seats. This simple refusal to move ignited student activism in the Civil Rights Movement. Later that same year, Ella Baker, who was at that point serving as the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization created to foster and organize the younger activists of the Civil Rights Movement.
While the word “nonviolent” was in the name of the organization, and while they were an offshoot of Dr. Martin Luther King’s SCLC, these young people, who became known as the “shock troops of the movement,” slowly began to slip away from nonviolence as a way of life. Soon it became merely a political strategy and eventually it became completely optional. On the other side of the conversation was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a perpetual proponent of nonviolence as the way forward. To quote him, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Dr. King’s story is often reduced to his “I Have a Dream” speech and his refusal to engage injustice with violence. It can be easy to see this as passive when in fact it was incredibly active. In a book excerpt called “An Experiment in Love” where Dr. King lays out the six pillars of nonviolence, he says,
While the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.
The nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement were intentionally disorienting for a system used to fighting strength with greater strength. It was guerrilla warfare. It threw water on circuits of racism and bigotry. For Dr. King, the fight against injustice had to be waged using a different set of tools. For him, those tools were rooted in his awareness of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a life steeped in peace, reconciliation, and love.
The refusal to respond to bullying, pain, and violence with the same is counterintuitive. It is ridiculous. It is utterly foolish. And that’s the whole point.
When Jesus tells his disciples to “take up their cross and follow,” he is prescribing an altogether different way of living in the world. In a society too often characterized by violence, greed, selfishness, and a denial of our common human dignity, Jesus was instructing his followers to the opposite – to live a life of peace, sustainability, compassion, and community. He went so far as to say that this way is to be followed even unto death, to which Peter objected.
“Jesus, what are you talking about!? What are you suggesting will not work? It leaves us vulnerable!”
“Get behind me Satan,” Jesus responds. “You are thinking about earthly things. I am calling you higher to the things of heaven. I am calling you to the Way of the Cross.”
The Way of the Cross is the path to which Jesus invites each of his followers, each one of us. The Way of the Cross is a way of peace, and compassion, and justice tempered with mercy, and selflessness, and community strengthened by diversity. In the face of a world the privileges the opposite, the Way of the Cross seems like a silly, impractical experiment. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The message of the cross is absurd.
It is crazy.
And it will save the world from itself.
The world around us seems determined to build bigger walls of division, distribute more and more weapons, and push of us into a more diminished view of ourselves. They promise safety and security, but all we get is more bloodshed and violence. If we desire a different outcome, we must do something different. In fact, we must upset all the rules by doing what Jesus actually commands us to do: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is not a license to be mistreated. God doesn’t need doormats any more than God needs weapons.
It does mean that the rules of engagement are different for those of us who profess to have been changed by our encounter with our Risen Lord – the Prince of Peace. It means that even our most bitter enemy is worthy of human dignity.
Taking up the cross of our counter-cultural engagement with the world is an act of resistance. It says, loud and clear, that power is not where we think it is. It proves the existence of an alternate possible reality – one where love, and justice, and peace reign supreme. A place where, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and we study war and violence no more.”
We are a people of peace and, in a world filled with violence, living peaceably is what it means to take up our cross.
We are a people of compassion and, in a world filled with hatred, showing compassion is what it means to take up our cross.
We are a people of welcome and, in a world filled with walls and barriers, welcoming is what it means to take up our cross.
We are a people of faith and hope and, in a world of cynicism and pessimism, keeping the faith and hoping against hope is what it means to take up our cross.
It is ridiculous.
It is foolish.
It the power of God and it will save the world.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom
 1 Corinthians 1:18
 Matthew 5:44.
 Isaiah 2:4