Feb. 28, 2021

Prayer of the Day

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Psalm 22: 23-31

23You who fear the Lord, give praise! All you of Jacob’s line, give glory.  Stand in awe of the Lord, all you offspring of Israel.
24For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither is the Lord‘s face hidden from them;  but when they cry out, the Lord hears them.

25From you comes my praise in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the sight of those who fear the Lord.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied, Let those who seek the Lord give praise! May your hearts live forever! 

27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of   nations shall bow before God.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord, who rules over the nations.29Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel before the Lord.
30Their descendants shall serve the Lord, whom they shall proclaim to generations to come.

31They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying to them, “The Lord has acted!”

Romans 4:13-25

13The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38

31[Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

 “Then he began to teach them.” We are encouraged to ask, what happened before the “then”? Our passage picks up in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter had responded, “You are the Messiah.” Dramatic healings, perplexing parables, incredible miracles, and shocking inclusion can all be seen as the characteristic activities of an appealing messiah. The Messiah is the anointed king through whom God will deliver or save God’s people. 

We are right to imagine that Jesus’ first disciples associate this title Messiah then with earthly glory. And in the disciples’ defense, they have witnessed a lot of local fanfare around Jesus. Crowds of mostly peasant villagers have swarmed to Jesus in order to witness and receive his healing powers. Whenever local leaders oppose Jesus, Jesus bests them in the debates. And so, it is hard to blame the disciples for seeing their future full of earthly glory.

But the model confession of faith by Peter has a disturbing sequel. And Jesus’ words jolt the disciples. Jesus lays the future out quite plainly. Up until now in his ministry, Jesus has spoken only cryptically about persecution. Now he says clearly that he, the Son of Man, must undergo rejection, suffering, and death. It is precisely for this reason that his followers will take up crosses and lose their lives. 

Yes, Jesus will rise again. Yes, persecuted disciples will receive new life. Still, here it becomes clear that the road to messianic glory runs through death on the cross. The disciples are following Jesus to a cross. 

An important word in today’s passage from Mark is “must.” “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” Often this verse is taken to mean that Jesus’ mission is principally to suffer and die. In this kind of reading, Jesus “must” go to the cross in order to affect a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins. 

But let’s pull the camera out and look at this verse in light of all of Jesus’ ministry. When we do that, we get a different, but still profound, explanation for Jesus’ death. Jesus dies because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order. 

Let me repeat that, Jesus dies because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order. This means that Jesus’ opponents are opposing what Jesus first announced when he came on the scene: the in-breaking reign of God.

The power, me might even call it the politics, at work in Jesus’ ministry has been and will continue to be central. For example, Jesus is unflinching in his insistence that the divine mission to welcome and reconcile sinners outweighs the stigma of associating with them. God’s mission to end human suffering is more important than any religious tradition that might hinder it. In other words, religious tradition is only worth keeping if it helps alleviate human suffering, if it helps usher in the reign of God. 

This is not a Christian correction to legalistic Judaism. It is instead a radical channeling of the longstanding Jewish belief in God’s compassion for the marginalized. 

What is the result of Jesus’ announcing this mission with his words and actions? The response to this healing, life-bringing mission is violent antagonism from the people invested in maintaining the status quo. This should no longer surprise us.

One scholar said, the real epiphany of today’s passage “is not that Jesus’ mission is to die, but that his faithfulness to God’s healing mission will inevitably result in his death…. Jesus ‘must’ die because his commitment to human healing will not falter.”

It might be easy for us to shake our heads at Peter’s rebuke and think that we never would have spoken to Jesus the way he did. But I am not so sure. Remember how the peasants out in Galilee were treated during the time of the Roman Empire or kingdom. Now this man Jesus comes along who is clearly the Messiah. 

They want the earthly liberation and victory they have always imagined—in which earthly power stands up to earthly power. Imagine Peter walking over to Jesus and taking him aside to set him straight about messiahship. “Suffering, rejection, and death are not on the agenda. Power, prestige, and dominion are on the agenda. It’s King David’s throne we’re after, ruling the nations with power and might. We signed up for a crown, not a cross!”

Peter was blinded by his own preconceptions, everything he thought should be on the messiah’s agenda. How often are we guilty of this? We assume that we know what must be done, so that even a word from Jesus himself cannot change our minds. We get blinded by our own prejudices, presuppositions, and preconceptions. We think we would never rebuke Jesus outright like Peter. Our rebuke is benign neglect, quiet indifference. 

In the midst of the conversation between Jesus and Peter, who Jesus addresses, seems to grow beyond the inner circle. We, the audience 2000 years later, are also drawn into Jesus’ invitation when he uses words like “anyone” and “whoever.” 

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In other words, as one scholar wrote, anyone who says they “follow Jesus must understand that sacrifice is involved. Discipleship is not some comfortable affiliation with Jesus but a life-changing-and potentially life-threatening—commitment to him.”

I think the most problematic word in the text for me today is not even in the text itself. It is how we have translated it, “take up your cross.” At its worse, it has been translated into something like, “bear your suffering meekly,” which drives abused women and others back into the hands of their abusers. More subtly but as much a distortion, a few weeks ago I was reading a book on Christian leadership which was lifting up deep humility. I wanted to hurl the book across the room and say, I finally believe in myself. Please do not shush me now, just when I am finding my voice. Fortunately, that’s not the cross-bearing Jesus is talking about.

Still, I know that I too am called to self-sacrifice, to take up my cross as an individual and as part of various communities. Our context of 21st century America, with our democratic government and economy shaped by capitalism, is both similar and different to 1st century Galilee under Roman occupation. 

Our context may be different, but the questions are the same: What are the barriers to the reign of God breaking in? What sacrifices will I make, that will cost me, really cost me, so that the reign of God comes in more quickly? Most days it feels like I have so little power to make any change. Where do I have power that I can wield? What power do I have with my voice, my wallet, my vote, my relationships? 

As a pastor of a congregation, these words of Jesus’ make me ask, what cross is our community asked to take up? What barriers to the reign of God breaking in can we help destroy? What will it cost us?    

These are all hard questions to ask during a pandemic, when the world has experienced so much death and loss. But the pandemic has also put a magnifying glass on those barriers to the reign of God. Every day we can read or hear about disparities in our health care system, barriers to exercising the right to vote, the widening gap between rich and poor. My deep abiding hope through all of it is that we will not waste all that has been brought to light.

This hope is grafted to the cross the Jesus himself bears. He carries it in a way I never will. Further, God will keep being present in surprising ways, just as Jesus was on the cross. Peter was hoping that Jesus would have earthly power, wealth, and fame and turn out to be the one on top. Martin Luther called this way of God working through things that are powerful a theology of glory. Jesus reveals, our passage today, and then again and again that God often works through the hidden, through weakness, even shame and death. Luther called it the theology of the cross.  

One scholar wrote that “A theology of the cross declares that the church is not Christendom, faith is not certainty, hope is not optimism, and love is not painless….To confess Jesus as Messiah is to recognize his dying body on the cross, and to recognize that discipleship is the way of our own cross.”

Prayers of Intercession

Relying on the promises of God, we pray boldly for the church, the world, and all in need.

A brief silence.

Your gift of grace is for all people. Give confident faith to all the baptized, that they may follow you wholeheartedly. Give new believers joy in your promises; give hope and courage to those who suffer for their faith. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

All the ends of the earth worship you. From galaxies to microorganisms, preserve your creation. Teach humanity to wonder at your works and to join you in tending to creation’s well-being. Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

You rule over the nations. Raise up advocates for peace and justice within and between nations. Give life where hope seems dead; call into existence new realities we cannot even imagine. (Here specific places of need may be named.) Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

In Jesus you joined humanity in suffering and death. Reveal to all the depth of your love shown on the cross. Accompany all who suffer in body, mind, and spirit. Restore all who are sick or grieving. Bring vindication for victims of injustice, exploitation, and oppression (especially). Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

You made Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of a multitude of nations. Bless grandparents, parents, and foster parents, and the children who look to them for care and guidance. Console those who deal with infertility, parents who have entrusted their children to adoption, and children longing to be adopted. Equip ministries and services to families. (The congregation’s ministries and community services may be named.) Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.

Strike in our hearts the desire to help the needy. Help us to recognize that hunger affects not nameless, faceless people, but other human beings: people with families, hopes, and dreams for a better future. Allow us to work hard to bring about positive change in the lives of these people. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

We await the day of Christ’s coming in glory. Lead us by the example of all the saints whom you have called to take up their cross and follow you, that together we may find our lives in you. Hear us, O God. Your mercy is great.

We entrust ourselves and all our prayers to you, O faithful God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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