February 25, 2018

Theme: This [Mark 8:31-37] is the focus of the Gospel of Mark. How does one enact the good news of the empire of God? One picks up a cross and walks. In Jesus’ society, you handle violence by suffering. No wonder Peter objects. But for those who have ears to hear, this is the path toward life.

Music:

Be Thou My Vision, arr. Dan Forrest Chancel Choir
We Will Walk With God, arr. John l. Bell HYMN

“…the quest for the historical Jesus has not presented “Jesus as he really was.” Rather, that quest has all along been the largely unconscious search for a Jesus who can bring us to life.”

         –Walter Wink

Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), p. 112.

Walter Wink
“All Christianity has to give, and all it needs to give, is the myth of the human Jesus. It is the story of Jesus the Jew, a human being, the incarnate son of the man: imperfect but still exemplary, a victim of the Powers yet still victorious, crushed only to rise again, in solidarity with all who are ground to dust under the jackboots of the mighty, healer of those under the power of death, lover of all who are rejected and marginalized, forgiver, liberator, exposer of the regnant cancer called “civilization”-that Jesus, the one the Powers killed and whom death could not vanquish. Jesus’ is the simple story of a person who gambled his last drop of devotion on the reality of God and the coming of God’s new world.”

Wink, The Human Being.

Mark 8:31-37 Scholars’ Version
He started teaching them that the Human One was destined to endure much, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scholars, and be killed, and after three days rise. And he was putting this in plain language. And Peter took him aside and began to lecture him. But he turned, noticed his disciples, and reprimanded Peter verbally:

“Get out of my sight, you Satan, you, because you’re not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.”

After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them,

“If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it. After all, what good does it do to acquire the whole world and forfeit your life? Or, what would you give in exchange for life?

Between Cardwell, Montana and Three Forks, Montana, on the old highway, east of Whitehall, Montana, where I grew up, you will find the Lewis and Clark Caverns. The limestone that forms these caves comes from calcified critters who at one time swam in the sea that covered this area 350 million years ago.

Lewis and Clark never saw the caverns. They had camped nearby. Teddy Roosevelt named the caverns for Lewis and Clark when he made the caverns a national monument. President Roosevelt named the Grand Canyon a national monument on the same day. At that time, Lewis and Clark hadn’t had a lot named for them. Eventually, Lewis and Clark Caverns became Montana’s first state park.

I visited there a lot as a kid, with family, with my elementary school, with my baseball team, church group. Going through the caverns is a lot of fun. The whole thing is about two miles. You hike up a trail for about a mile then enter the cave and the guide leads you down the first set of stairs. Thanks to the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps during the other President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the caverns were made tour ready.

So you go down the first set of steps to the first landing. On the floor is a huge stalagmite that is probably three feet in diameter and is lying down broken. It likely landed, when it was first opened up in late 1800s when they blasted the entrance. The tour guide called the stalagmite, “Decision Rock.” Why?

At this point in the tour, we cave explorers have to make a decision. You can decide to go back up and end the tour, or you can decide to continue the tour. If you continue the tour and you get tired or scared or claustrophobic and want to quit, sorry, no deal. They won’t let you die in there, but you become a big hassle.

You should know before you go what is ahead. It isn’t that strenuous. You may have to slide on your rear end for a brief period. You have to duck and squeeze and waddle in a few places. A lot of up and down on the stairs the CCC made.

At Decision Rock, you have the opportunity one last time to reconsider whether or not you want to continue this journey through the limestone caverns. Going back now is fine. No one will judge. But you have to decide now. Decision Rock.

Chapter 8 verses 31 to 37 in Mark’s Gospel is like Decision Rock. Up until then, Jesus is a master showman. He is healing, casting out demons, feeding thousands of people with just a few scraps of food (twice!), walking on the water, calming a storm while on a boat, telling funny little parables that are hard to understand, casting out more demons, curing blindness, curing lameness, even doing some experimental internal medicine by curing hemorrhages, raising a young girl from the dead, running slightly afoul of the authorities, and getting called Satan by his opponents and in return calling them whitewashed tombs.

It is all fun. Wouldn’t it have been fun to be a part of that? On tour with Jesus, doing the thing. Announcing a change in how the world works when we live by the principles of God’s empire and not Caesar’s empire. Being part of a movement to bring peace, love, justice, and good tunes to the people. Waking up. Rocking the boat. I’m on that. I’m feeling it. You?

Then the tone becomes a bit somber, dark clouds which have been on the horizon move quickly toward the once happy band, accompanied by wind and pelts of rain. The storm is coming.

It is all fun and games skirting around the edges, poking empire with a stick, healing people without a permit, working outside of the medical industrial complex. Announcing subversive, dangerously naughty ideas that border on empowering the poor and dispossessed, naming and calling out the powers that be.

That’s all fun and games—until they start crucifying you. Up and until then, Jesus has been a bit skimpy on self-disclosure. When the demons and unclean spirits scream out his name and title as Jesus is doing the exorcist thing on them, he makes them shut up. Jesus talks in parables. In riddles.

A farmer plants seeds and they grow. That is the empire of God!

Huh?

But now, Jesus looks each of them in the eye. He speaks plainly. He is clear. Like on those more rare than common days when Mt. Hood appears out of nowhere when you turn the corner and look east—was it always there?

Clear, plain as a mountain in your path, are Jesus’s words in Mark 8:31:

He started teaching them that the Human One was destined to endure much, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scholars, and be killed, and after three days rise. And he was putting this in plain language.

The “Human One” is the Jesus Seminar translation of the son of the man, whatever that means. Jesus scholars have been puzzling over that phrase for a long time. Son of the man? Is it like superman, a supernatural hero who will come to save the day? Is it another name for the human species? Perhaps a name for the archetypal human? Who knows, but it is Jesus’ favorite title for himself. He calls himself the son of the man more than any other title.

Perhaps and this is just a perhaps, Jesus is the son of “the man” just like you and me. We are products of “the man” whether we recognize it or not. We are named, claimed, and programmed by the Powers, the man, our whole lives. We are told what is important, what is taboo, what life means, how we are to live it, what we are to value, what we are to shun, what we can talk about, what we cannot talk about, and we know it, even as we are not always awake to it and are reticent to admit it.

When Jesus says the son of the man or the Human One is destined to endure much, he notches up the tension. There is a price for being woke. For waking up. The Human Being who wakes up is dangerous.

That story replays throughout history, right? The person who is an offspring of “the man” wakes up to the violence the man inflicts, names it, and becomes a danger to the carefully constructed world the man controls. Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Harvey Milk, Daniel Berrigan, we could go on all day.

The Son of the Man refers not only to our common bond, our heritage, our ancestry, our condition, as products, both beneficiaries and victims of powers that are not individuals in high places, or even groups of individuals, but an emerging collection of rules, rites, histories, and commitments to agendas that serve power imbalance. We say things like “The Bank” or “The System.” We are all part of it. Children of the man.

But the son of the man also refers to the awakening.

The son of the man is one who knows she or he is the son of the man. Once that awakening happens, it is decision rock. That is part of the whole thing. You awaken to the reality of, “I have white privilege” for example.

I’ll just give a few illustrations. I mentioned the medical industrial complex. DSM 5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the newest one for mental health. Here’s an interesting factoid. Over 50 percent of the contributors to the DSM 5 are from the pharmaceutical industry. The DSM 5, some may cynically say, has the illness fit the pill.

For example, it used to be that depression and anxiety you could take a pill for that or several or a cocktail. But there is an exception for bereavement. While in the DSM 5 those folks have decided that bereavement is no longer an exception. You can actually get better with the same pill that cures depression and anxiety.

If you are feeling sad that you’ve lost your loved one. Take this. Feel better. I don’t know about you but there’s something just a little awkward about that. I actually just want to grieve and I think you do too. Okay.

I’ve mentioned the military industrial complex. People go from Booz Allen Hamilton who makes the weapons into the military and then they go back again. It is a revolving wheel and it makes for huge weapons manufacturing and profit-making. Markets for weapons are created. Creating markets for weapons‘  manufacturing is one of the biggest businesses all around the world by “the man”.

The church.  “The man” protects the clergy who sexually abuse children.

I’m not going to depress you anymore and I’m not going to just have you argue about those points. There can be hundreds of others that you can think of that describe a situation in which there are powers of imbalance and we benefit by them and we’re victims of them at the same time and there’s nobody that’s really outside of that.

But there is a time when we for whatever reason, whatever happens, we wake up to this every now and then, and we celebrate the heroes and sheroes of history who have woken up to these things and made changes happen because of that.

We all get this. We know “the man” so does Peter and the disciples. When Jesus says “the man” is going to kill us, then Peter objects.

“Don’t be saying this stuff. You are freaking people out.”

I know I am putting words in Peter’s mouth. We don’t know the content of the lecture Peter gave Jesus.

Regardless, Jesus pushes back hard. Calls him Satan.

And Peter took him aside and began to lecture him. But he turned, noticed his disciples, and reprimanded Peter verbally:

“Get out of my sight, you Satan, you, because you’re not thinking in God’s terms, but in human terms.”

Then Jesus uses this as a teaching moment.

After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them,

“If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it. After all, what good does it do to acquire the whole world and forfeit your life? Or, what would you give in exchange for life?

And that, I think, is the crux of Mark’s gospel.

The cross was the instrument the time of Jesus of state sanctioned terror. It functioned in a similar way that lynching did in the United States. The spectacle and terror of lynching was used by the white man to keep blacks in their place. James Cone articulated this connection in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Jesus says pick up the cross and follow. When you become awake and aware and invite violence from the powers because you name them, how do you respond?

Jesus’ answer is, “You suffer.”

This is the heart of the gospel and the most terrifying part of it. How do you respond to violence from “the man”? You suffer. That’s no answer. Jesus needs a lecture. Peter gives it to him. Jesus insists. You want the path to life? You want to follow this empire of God that is breaking in? You suffer violence. You pick it up and carry it. You carry it before it carries you.

I remember I was rather naive but I had to fill out the form going into the ministry and why I was going into it. Way back in the old days and I was so naive that I wrote:

“I feel that the ministry is a way to discover truth.”

And I thought How crazy is that. Who would ever think today that the church is a place for truth? But I felt that religion and particularly the Christian religion and my Christian religion my Christian faith that I grew up is a place in which we can embrace the truth of things in which we can talk about “the man” and find ways in which we can respond to that and ways not only just talking but doing.

When I talk about those kinds of things there’s no special perspective I have. I am so completely compromised that it’s just scary. Like all of us so it isn’t a matter of standing outside. It’s a matter of being within and we’re all within.

Following, picking up the cross, responding to the violence that’s inflicted on those who speak about things that matter, is no fun thing. But it’s also the thing that gives life. When we think of people who have been whistleblowers. I’ve mentioned the pharmaceutical industry I’m not picking on anybody. I mean it’s the whole thing. You can go anywhere and find the powers in some form or another. I’m thinking of a guy named Wendell Potter.

He was in his airplane and he worked for an insurance company. He’s writing his memoirs about this on the plane the corporate insurance company’s jet and eating off of gold-plated utensils. He is thinking about his trip to a place in southwest Virginia just north of where I lived in Johnson City, Tennessee and they don’t really have great medical care there.

Southwest Virginia it isn’t McLean, Virginia. All right. Southwest Virginia. It’s Appalachia and t what they do for health is that they every now and then they’ll bring these tents out—everything from dental exams to anything you can think of. And it’s a clinic meaning that whatever doctors they can get to do it for free come and participate.

And here is Wendell Potter, the insurance company guy.

So he goes and visits this place and he’s scratching his head because none of these people have insurance. And so then he gets in his airplane and he’s eating off his gold-plated utensils. That was the one thing that did it was the gold plated utensils that finally got to him and he ended up becoming a whistleblower. Look him up. Wendell Potter ends up becoming a whistleblower against against the insurance company because, as he puts it, the insurance company makes its money by not insuring you.

And so he’s starting to expose the whole scam of this thing. And so he’s waking up and of course because he’s waking up he gets the violence from the powers, he gets the mistreatment in the media, he gets all of this kind of stuff because he started to talk about these kinds of things.

And so in my mind I would say he is someone who is picking up the cross. That’s what I’m talking about when we say picking up the cross. It has a particularity about it. The cross is a symbol of that thing that’s put in place to keep us quiet.

Pharmaceuticals again. Why does a pharmaceutical company want you to get over depression and we’ll just include bereavement now thanks to DSM 5. Take the pill and get back to work ASAP. Get right back on the treadmill. You don’t have any time for this grieving. That’s what Italians do. They take vacations, not you. You’ve got to get back in there and get to work.

Tell the truth about this. That is picking up the cross.

It is what is compelling and frightening about the gospel and it’s the what that’s the one thing that I think if Christianity is going to have a future it’s going to be centered on something like this—on this passage of the Gospel of Mark that says,

“What’s your soul worth?”

“What is your life for?”

Now that isn’t the end of the story. The end of the story is that he’ll rise again in three days. That’s the end of the story. That’s what allows us to pick up the cross in the first place. That’s what allows us to begin to enter into this story and to have the guts and the courage to speak what we need to speak because the powers and their wily ways are not the final answer according to this crazy story called Christianity.

Christianity puts its trust that integrity is its own reward and it’s contagious…like mustard seed thrown out in the field that becomes a big weed and takes it over. But we do have to make a decision at decision rock and we make it many times throughout our lives.

Will we pick it up and follow?

Amen.