2 Lent – February 28, 2021
Mark 8:31-38

          With all of the loss and pain and isolation and death we’ve been experiencing through this past year, Peter’s rebuke feels especially poignant at this time. I can relate to Peter.

In our reading from Mark, Jesus predicts his death for the first time.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” Jesus tells his disciples.  He must “be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

In the words of Debi Thomas: “Standing on this side of resurrection history, we too easily miss the bombshell effect these words have on Jesus’s disciples.  Their great hope, cultivated over the three years they follow Jesus, is that he will lead them in a military revolution and overthrow their Roman oppressors.  After all, they’ve seen him feed the multitudes, heal the sick, clear the temple, and raise the dead.  They’ve witnessed firsthand his charismatic ability to draw crowds.  They’ve heard him proclaim the arrival of a new and glorious kingdom that will never end and never fail.

In other words, he is their longed-for future and their cherished dream.  So what can be more disorienting, more ludicrous, than the news that their would-be champion is determined to walk into a death trap?  To surrender without a fight to a common criminal’s death?

Cue Peter, who takes Jesus aside and scolds him for being too macabre.  Too fatalistic.  Too un-Messiah-ish.  How dare the “good news” hero speak such gruesome bad news?  How dare he choose a path contrary to his followers’ expectations?”

And so, I can relate to Peter.  After all, he means so well.  He cares so much.  Remember, Peter has lived his entire life under the cruel yoke of the Roman Empire.  He has seen torture and death.  He has walked past rows of Roman crosses.  He knows what so called “justice” under colonialism looks like.  Haven’t the children of God experienced enough hardship?  Isn’t it time to do battle?  To win?  So why on earth is Jesus preparing his followers for more pain and loss instead? What does he mean by denying ourselves and taking up our cross?

Well first of all….narrative context is important.  When this passage is taken out of context, it does seem to suggest that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to suffer and die. But when read within its narrative context, we come to see that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to give life—knowing that earthly powers will violently oppose them.

Jesus is essentially helping Peter, and us, face what we try so hard to avoid – suffering and death. To take up a cross as Jesus did is to stand in the center of the world’s pain. Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body that surrounds us, and pouring our energies and our lives into alleviating that pain.

Rabbi Ariel Burger shares a fascinating image: “that the world is a baby in our hands, and the baby’s running a fever. And if I were holding a baby, my baby, in my arms and the baby were running a fever, I would feel two things that don’t always come together, that I think we need to bring together: One is such a sense of tenderness and love and openheartedness; and also, such a sense of ferocity and willingness to fight and do whatever I need to do to get this baby well”.

We are in the season of Lent. This is a time when we might embrace lamentation. A collective lament.  Lamentation is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. It means more than just shedding a few tears. Lamentation is when grief pours out. It is standing at the cross and acknowledging our pain and suffering, acknowledging each other’s pain and suffering, acknowledging the world’s pain and suffering.  Lamenting has dignity. We need to honor our grief, instead of running away from it as we are taught to do. For that matter, we also seem to run away from great joy. Standing at the cross is about finding the places where weeping and joy can come together or where yearning and delight can come together.

Perhaps the call of this week’s passage, especially amid this pandemic and all that’s happened in the last year, is to be willing to embrace the pain of others – rather than explain it, or simply seek to comfort it, or fit it into some larger plan – trusting that God is in the midst of our brokenness, working for and calling us to life.

Probably the one thing that unifies us most fully is that each of us has experienced brokenness: it may be the abandonment of a parent, the betrayal of a loved one, the loss of a child, the death of a dream, the oppression of those who hold power over us, or any number of other things. You name it. Yet the fact remains: to live is to struggle, to hurt, and to experience loss and brokenness.  But the reality is that most of us try to hide our brokenness from others.

When we stand at the foot of the cross and we embrace each other’s brokenness; we experience first that God is with us through the cross.  And then we also hear and experience God calling us to life and courage in and through the resurrection. How that resurrection call will take shape in each of us is hard to predict. Maybe it will be to believe without question the person who has shared a story of sexual assault or to stand unflinchingly with a person seeking fair treatment in the face of discrimination. Perhaps it will be to keep faith with the one who no longer remembers you because of dementia or to hold vigil with the one near death’s door. Perhaps it will be to call for action when action needs to be taken. However God’s cross and resurrection call comes, embracing another’s pain doesn’t stop with “thoughts and prayers” but moves also to love for, and action with and on behalf of, those for whom we are praying.

Rabbi Ariel Burger tells a story his son shared with him when he was on a trip during his semester long program in Israel. He made a friend named Mason and the group went on a trip to Poland.  And when they got to Poland, they were touring some of the centers of Jewish life before the war, and they were also going to the camps. And on the third or fourth day of the time in Poland, Mason disappeared for the day with one of the counselors on the program.

And he wouldn’t tell anyone where he was going, and he came back and he wouldn’t tell anyone where he had been. And then he told my son, because they were friends or because my son noodged him a lot to tell him. And this is what he told my son. He said, “My grandparents were survivors. They were married three weeks before the deportation to Auschwitz. And in Auschwitz they were separated, obviously, and he would go every evening to the fence separating the men’s and the women’s sides of the camps, to bring her a crust of bread or an extra potato if he could, or even just to see her.

“Until my grandmother,” he said, “was transferred to a rabbit farm on the outskirts of Auschwitz.” The Nazis were doing experiments on rabbits that had to do with finding a cure for typhus. “And the rabbit farm was run by a Polish man who noticed, pretty early on, that the rabbits were getting better quality food and attention and care than the Jewish slave laborers. So he started to sneak in food for the Jewish slave laborers and the inmates.

“And then,” Mason told my son, “my grandmother cut her arm on a piece of barbed wire, and the cut became infected. And it wasn’t a serious infection, if you had antibiotics. But of course, if you were a Jew in that place, in that time, there was no way you were going to get antibiotics. So what did this Polish man who was running the rabbit farm do? He cut his own arm open, and he placed his wound on her wound so that he would get the infection that she had, and he became infected. And he went to the Nazis, and he said, ‘I’m one of your best managers. This rabbit farm is very productive. If I die, you’re gonna lose a lot of productivity. I need medicine.’ They gave him medicine, and he shared it with her. And he saved her life.”

So Mason said to my son, he said, “Where was I, when I left the other day and I disappeared? I went to see that Polish man. He’s still alive and living on the outskirts of Warsaw, and I went to say, thank you for my life. Thank  you for my life.”

So my son told me this story this year, and it raises a lot of questions about, what does it take to be the kind of person who will share someone else’s wound, in spite of all the pressure to see them as less valuable than a rabbit? What does it take to push against all that pressure and do the right thing, with courage and moral clarity, and to see another person as a person, when everything around you is telling you not to?

We stand at the foot of the cross and there is hope that lies in the power of the resurrection. And so, I end with a blessing in the shape of a cross written by Jan Richardson. Please take this moment to make the shape of a cross in both of your palms.

Blessing in the Shape of a Cross

Press this blessing
into your palms—
right, left—
and you will see
how it leaves its mark,

how it imprints itself
into your skin,
how the lines of it
and cross

as if signaling you
to the treasure
that has been in
your grasp
all along.

Except that these riches
you will count
not by what you hold
but by what you release,
by what you lose,
by what falls from
your open hands.   —Jan Richardson