A few years ago, I visited my local motorsports dealer in an attempt to purchase a scooter. I thought, considering it was a relatively inexpensive item (in comparison to much of what sat on the showroom floor) … and one that I was happy to pay sticker price for … I thought that I would escape the normal high-pressure, sales game.
I was wrong. The salesperson insisted on still going through his routine. He tried to soften me up a bit by making me believe he was the kind of guy with whom I would play a little golf. He told me all the courses where he could get us in for free, and a bunch of other stuff that went way over my head about pro shop discounts and carbon something-or-another.
I stopped him, and I said “I can see you are really passionate about it, but I don’t play golf. Sorry. So about this scooter … can we …”
But he jumped right in “You don’t play golf?” Now he had something to sell me. He talked about the serenity of the game and this whole zen thing that comes with it. But I kept on persisting that I wasn’t interested in golf.
“I’m sorry, but golf doesn’t do that for me,” I said. “It makes me pretty angry, in fact. Golf may be the least zen thing I can do. Anyway, how about we make this deal.”
He seemed as shocked by this as I was that he was refusing to take my money. But he was determined to sell me on golf. At one point, he questioned my patriotism. And, although I was pretty sure golf was a Scottish sport, I let it roll. Instead I went to a happy place, imagining myself rolling along on my new scooter at a whopping 30 miles per hour … the wind blowing through my beard … the whine of the tiny little motor … the looks of confusion from the people on the sidewalk who, by the sound of things were wondering if someone’s lawn mower escaped their yard. And he went on and on. Until he said a word that made me snap out of my daydream.
It was Jesus. He said it a few times actually. Usually preceded by words of adoration …. you know, Jesus’ “sweetness”. Like how sweet he was when it came to tee shots and donuts on the fairway with the golf cart.
At least 30 minutes into the whole ordeal, we finally got back to the matter at hand. He asked me where I’d be doing the majority of my riding. And I told him the town where I lived. Then he asked me what I did in said town. And I told him I was a pastor. And suddenly he was overcome. His eyes got really big. His head sunk into his shoulders. And his mouth opened, but – for the first time in a long time – nothing came out of it.
Words were finally formed, and he said, rather timidly, “A pastor? Why didn’t you tell me that sooner?”
I told him that it wasn’t a big deal. But after we got all the paperwork done and he handed me the keys, he said “I’m really sorry if I said anything to offend you or God.”
I told him I don’t get easily offended by things like that. And that I believed God was much more interested in how he lived for God as opposed to how he spoke of God.
He looked at me, puzzled. “That seems a lot harder than getting the words right, pastor.”
Of course, I believe he was right. Much of faith today seems to be more about what we say than what we do. It is easier to choose the right words than to choose the hard life.
In our lesson from Mark’s gospel today we are faced with the dueling nature of words and action … the choice to say versus the choice to do.
It begins with Jesus walking along with the disciples to the distant land of Caesarea Philippi. It is a place that was far from the religious centers of the city; far, even, from the outskirts where Jesus had been doing the majority of his work. It was a place where there were likely fewer people who had heard about him … it isn’t likely he would have the same reputation there as he did back at home.
So, as he walks, and he gets some distance from it, he is curious about what his perceived identity is. He asks the disciples, “Who do people … those people back behind us … who do they say I am?”
And while all complementary … John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets … they were all wrong.
“Alright, then. Who do you say that I am?” Jesus continues.
And Peter answers. “You are the messiah … The anointed of God.”
And with that Jesus issues them an edict, “Don’t tell anyone about me. Keep that part a secret. Say nothing.”
Curious isn’t it? Jesus is all concerned with what people are saying, and now that he knows there are some people with seemingly the correct answer, they are ordered not to speak of it. And that may be because Jesus did not define the word Messiah in the way that Peter did.
In Peter’s mind … what it means to be the anointed of God it to be the revolutionary victor … the one who would restore the throne of their ancestors by whatever means necessary … the one who would inflict what we would understand as “cowboy justice” on those who stood against them.
So when Jesus begins to explain that the Messiah should suffer you can imagine Peter’s dismay. So Jesus gets a talkin’ to. And it sounded a lot like the talkin’ to he got while he was out in the wilderness for 40 days. And it was tempting. “Just tell them all who you are, Jesus. Tell them who you are and they will fall into line. None of this nonsense about you dying … let us say it and they will die for you.”
“No, Jesus says, “Speak nothing of this business that I am the anointed one. They won’t understand what that means. You don’t seem to understand what that means.”
“They won’t hear about who I am. Instead they will see it.”
And with that, Jesus calls the crowd and the disciples together. This is a rare moment for him to teach about discipleship to both those who are committed and those who are curious. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
Here is what we are to do. The only thing we say is “no” to ourselves. To follow is to carry a cross … an implement of death.
Now I’m sure you’re familiar with this carrying, or bearing, a cross. It is a phrase that has made its way into our popular idiom. All too often, we use this statement from Jesus to justify us living in the life we have now. This weight problem is my cross to bear, this debt is my cross to bear. This family is my cross to bear.
That is not at all what Mark’s gospel has Jesus expressing here. These are things that are of ourselves. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, bear our crosses and follow. Carry a burden, not a pamphlet.
Bearing a cross is putting yourself in the room where your friend is about to tell his parents that he is HIV positive.
Bearing a cross is answering the phone call from a coworker asking you to come to the hospital because their partner is about to breathe her last and they don’t want to be alone.
Bearing a cross is knocking on the door of the home of a neighbor along with the police to relay the message that her husband had murdered their child.
Bearing a cross is choosing to stand in prayer, surrounding room of people who have expressed their hatred for you and your life, and invoking the blessing of God upon them.
Bearing a cross is to march for the rights of workers who might make more than you, or organizing for people who have nothing to give you in return.
Bearing a cross is choosing to stay in a denomination that has done little to welcome you.
Bearing a cross is not carrying your share of suffering. It is, instead, taking on a share of someone else’s suffering.
Crosses … they are choices. They are not something we get burdened with by somebody else. They are not parts of our humanity that we (and others) struggle with. They are the ways that we choose to enter into the God-way … convicted by the Spirit that the death of something in us is the way that life can happen. And unlike words, crosses are not something that are easily confused for something else. Crosses are bulky. They leave a trail.
And this is a gift. By the cross, the grace of God relieves us from this duty to semantics. We are not to serve God alone by the words we choose. Instead, we are given the gift of the cross. The gift of carrying a life that is so radical, so symbolically different in the choices that we make, is that our discipleship becomes evident in our silence. We don’t need to say anything, because everything is slung over our shoulder.
Choosing to bear a cross instead of speaking of the cross is a blessing, because it affords us the gift of being the vessels of God’s grace that appear in the middle of suffering. Like the cross-bearing Jesus, the Spirit affords us the gift of embodying God’s real presence when suffering suffocates our ability to speak.
Words alone cannot bring healing in the way that the choice to be present can. Words do nothing to point to the reality of God’s in-coming reign the way a cross slung over the shoulder does … especially when we choose to take those crosses as our own.
While painful, it is also a blessing to sit silently in the chapel with your friends after just having been shocked by the death of their son.
While painful, it is also a blessing to listen to the co-worker tell you about her night, and then travel with her to the hospital where they will put her in a room and open a rape kit.
While painful, it is also a blessing to cry in desperation along with angry parents who have lost another child to prison.
These are heavy things, but they are also a blessing.
What is the heavy thing that you choose to carry because of Jesus? According to him, the cross is how we become alive. According to him the cross is how we come to know God. According to him, the cross is how we are blessed.
“Don’t tell anyone about me,” Jesus says. “Instead, take up your cross and follow.”