A Hard Word
I am pleased to announce that beginning March 22, you and I will be able to purchase Girl Scout Cookies in the neighborhood of The Riverside Church.
I am pretty sure that this opinionated congregation could have extensive conversations about which type of Girl Scout Cookie is the best one, but let’s focus here: did you hear me? March 22. All I can say is I pity the one who decided to give up cookies for Lent.
Though I may be mistaken, it is my impression that Girl Scout Cookies are almost universally appreciated; every year, for example, I read Facebook after Facebook update pledging to walk past the Girl Scouts’ sidewalk tables and abysmally failing . . . for the fourth time in three days . . . when a box of thin mints suddenly jumps out and assaults them. I even learned recently that there is an app you can download to your phone that will tell you exactly when and where you can buy Girl Scout Cookies. Some of us have installed it on our phones.
The Girl Scouts have been selling cookies since 1922, when local troops made cookies from a special recipe, packaged them in wax paper bags with Girl Scout seals, and sold them door-to-door for 35 cents a dozen. And whoever thought of Girl Scouts selling cookies . . . actually, her name was Florence Neil, from Chicago . . . was a genius, because, as we know, people wait all year long for that special season when all their friends sheepishly walk around the office selling on behalf of their own personal Girl Scouts. The cookies sell themselves. They really do.
And so I was thinking this week that it’s one thing to sell Girl Scout cookies. Those little ones put on the cute little uniforms, set up their tables right in the middle of the sidewalks, and—well, those boxes fly off the shelves. Let’s see . . . delicious, addictive cookies, purchased for a good cause: “to build girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place!”
I confess just a bit of envy as I read our passage from Mark’s gospel today, in which Jesus lays out the hard, hard words of his marketing slogan: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Today we continue our exploration of the gospel passages presented to us by the lectionary this Lent; our them is Holy Conversations, interactions Jesus had and we have, that lead us to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what it means to call ourselves followers of Jesus.
And today we’re invited to almost the very mid-point of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus decides it’s about time he gets serious with the folks who are following him. We stumble upon Jesus here as he’s explaining to his disciples how he’s expects rough waters ahead for him, for them, even. He uses cheery words like: suffering, rejection, death.
Recall what I mentioned last week, that all throughout the gospel of Mark the disciples following Jesus were forever misunderstanding him and this gig they’d signed up for. Some were taken with Jesus’ miracles; some were looking for a political leader; others were hoping for professional advancement. Frustration getting pretty close to the surface by this time in Mark’s story, Jesus decided to disabuse his disciples of any misconceptions about who he was and what he had come to do: “the Son of Man will undergo great suffering, will be rejected, will be killed . . . .” He didn’t even try to sugar coat it; Jesus’ word for his disciples was a hard, hard word. Look, friends. We’ve had enough time together that you should know I’m not messing around. This gospel I’m preaching is counter-cultural; it’s unpopular. It’s offensive to people in power and it’s dangerous to those who become its adherents. It will ask you to do unlikely and unpopular things, to give up the whole world, basically. And it will make people really, really, really mad.
What’s not to love, right? Wrong. You’ll note there’s no app for upcoming opportunities to be ridiculed, suffer, and die for the sake of the gospel….
And the text says that Peter stepped in then, trying to moderate Jesus’ rhetoric here. In Peter’s defense, Jesus must have been every political handler’s worst nightmare. Peter pulled him aside and politely reminded him that all this talk about suffering and dying and giving up stuff was just not going to really impress people, and it certainly would not help to achieve the political prominence those folks in the movement hoped for.
But then, the text says, Jesus stopped Peter’s protests—pretty forcefully, if you ask me—and then launched into his hard, hard words: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross . . . and follow me.”
Tempting, isn’t it? Maybe not.
If you hang around me for any length of time, you will soon learn that I am a big fan of “reframing the narrative.” That is, it’s a basic truth of human interaction that our words have power, and how we use them is just as impactful as what we’re trying to communicate. I find this works very well in many different life situations, including but not limited to parenting and pastoring.
For example, you could say: “I am sick and tired of nagging you, young man! If your chores are not finished by 4 pm today, you will lose your allowance for the next week!” Or, you could say: “Today you have an opportunity to show me what a responsible member of this family you are; you’ve got a whole three hours, until 4 pm, to knock those chores out. I feel sure that you’ll take care of that, and then we can all go to the movies!”
Or, as we were joking a few weeks ago in nominating committee meeting, it’s much less compelling to say: “Can you sign up for a committee,” than “How would you like the opportunity to invest in the life of this community in a meaningful way?”
See what I mean? Reframing the narrative!
And I think that’s all Peter was trying to say when he pulled Jesus aside. “Why such a hard word, Jesus? Why? I frankly don’t see the advantage of using words like ‘suffer’ and ‘die’. I find these words are not the most compelling. Why not put it like this: ‘Here’s a great opportunity to be part of a movement that will change the world! It will be challenging, but I’ll show you how to do it…!”
But Jesus was having none of that. He insisted, in fact, referencing death on a cross, the most heinous symbol of Roman persecution, the worst way anybody could die, a mention that immediately made everyone think of violence, horror, dread. So you can understand Peter’s concern. Please, Jesus. Please reframe the narrative…these are hard words, and they are not going to draw people in—not at all. In fact, if they take this conversation seriously, they’re going to run in the other direction!
Jesus wouldn’t back down at all. And in over 2000 years, not much has changed in the way we hear these words. Though we’re not as viscerally familiar with the reality of crucifixion, we’re probably just as committed to avoiding pain and suffering as any one of those disciples of Jesus’.
In fact, most of the time we construct elaborate attempts to alleviate our pain; we try any manner of approaches to numb our hurting; we search for the answer that will make everything better . . . and we’ll search in the most unusual places. And, like the first disciples, maybe we even have taken to calling ourselves disciples of Jesus because we think on some level that it will make our lives easier.
But did you hear these hard words of Jesus? He’s asking us to deny ourselves, to turn the focus of our lives firmly away from our own comfort and gain and toward the hard work of relationship with God and with others. He’s asking us to give up using the things we find so valuable—possessions, position—to define who we are and what we care about. He’s asking us to know in the deepest parts of who we are, what really, really matters, and to risk everything we are to live out the radical gospel of loving God and loving each other.
Jesus will not listen to Peter here, and he will not let us off the hook. He didn’t come to make us comfortable by spouting platitudes and shiny promises of success and comfort. He came to show us the way to life, and he wasn’t scared to tell the truth, the hard truth, about how exactly we get there.
You may be familiar with the Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote a quaint little fairy tale we know as “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” You’ll remember that the story goes like this: an emperor of a prosperous city hires two dishonest salesmen who tell him they will sew him a fine new set of clothes from a cloth more beautiful than anyone has ever seen before. The thing is that the cloth is so beautiful that it is invisible to anyone who is stupid or unfit for his position. The Emperor can’t see the cloth, but he doesn’t want to appear stupid, of course, so he acts like he does. When the salesmen tell the king that the suit is finished, they pretend to dress him and take him out on a procession through the capital showing off his new “clothes”. Of course, everybody has heard the tale of the magic cloth and nobody wants to look stupid, so folks clap politely as the king walks by clothes-less!
The whole charade is ruined, though when during the course of the procession a young child watching on the sidelines yells, “Hey! The king is not wearing any clothes!”
Jesus is doing the most audacious thing in this passage. He’s telling the truth. And the truth is hard.
You know, it’s no wonder that the foot of the cross was very sparsely populated the day that Jesus died. There was nothing about the specter of the cross that proclaimed, “take it easy” or “no more pain.” Maybe they watched with horror and remembered that day Jesus told them the hard truth. And maybe then, a realization dawned: he really meant it. He really meant it for them, and he really means it for us.
It’s the grand paradox—we find the meaning of our lives, the ease to our pain, the sense that we are home and all is right with the world—not when we desperately try any quick-fix to feel better. No, we gain the very meaning of our lives . . . when we give them away; when we look at our lives and see the suffering we experience; and when we decide, regardless, to follow Jesus.
So today, hear this holy conversation filled with a hard, hard word: look your greatest fear and your deepest pain straight in the eyes (that’s the “pick up your cross” part)—this pain and struggle are part of human living. Then, refuse to let your pain structure your life, define your existence or motivate your living. Instead, come on and follow.
Because it’s by acknowledging the suffering and fear but getting up to follow anyway . . . that you and I will find our place in God’s greater plan for the world, a place in which we can tell the truth about who we are; a place where we look left and right and realize we’re not alone; a place in which our lives become part of something bigger and more wonderful than we could ever have imagined.