Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16† Psalm 22:23-31 † Romans 4:13-25 † Mark 8:31-38
Christy Ma began her newspaper article about a day filled with extraordinary events like this: “Valentine’s Day was a day of love, passion and friendships.” The first line flowed easily, but it took a few more days to get the rest together for the student newspaper the Eagle Eye. She and her co-author Nikhita Nookala drew guidance and reinforcement from each other and from the encouragement of an adviser to get it put together.[i]
Christy and Nikhita, you see, are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and they were writing stories about one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history—a shooting they had experienced. They were covering the shooting and the candlelight vigil that followed, even as they were living it firsthand.
Our adviser, Melissa Falkowski, sent us a message the day after the shooting. She told us, "I know it will be extremely hard for you, but the vigil is something we're going to have to cover." So when we started writing the article, we found it impossible to write about the vigil without addressing the shooting itself. That's when we split it into two articles. We both helped each other with content and Christy helped with the editing so that we could get them up in a timely fashion and portray all of the events with as much accuracy as we had knowledge of.[ii]
In an interview Christy said “Believe me, I feel very angry and hurt while writing these articles — wondering why I even have to write such articles. There are hundreds of questions popping up in my mind — but writing these articles also in a way gives me the healing I need.”
I don’t know about you, but these Stoneman Douglas students who have taken the indescribable trauma they have experienced and transfigured it into activism have given me a hope that I haven’t felt for some time. While this may not be the tipping point for the healing of our society, it has surely moved us closer to it.
These students have learned the hard way—although I suspect they’ve known for some time—that the adults are not going to solve the problem. And so the younger generation looks as if it is deciding it will have to bear this burden.
Jesus tells the disciples:
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.[iii]
I think the danger with a line like this is that we will somehow try to interpret it as magic or mystery—or as some kind riddle that suggests a secret knowledge. But I don’t think that’s actually the case. Jesus’ invitation is not much different from what high school journalist and mass shooting victim Christy Mas understands. Writing these articles, doing the work, continuing on this ancient path whether we feel like we are soaring like eagles or running or just barely able to walk is part of the healing, growing, seeing, saving process to which Jesus invites his disciples.
You see, before we can understand what it means to take up our crosses as disciples of Jesus, before we understand what it means to follow, we need to understand what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah. These two questions are at the heart of this particular text.
And we should not forget this: Jesus’ answers to both questions are as unacceptable now as they were then.
Peter personifies the challenge for us. This one who in one breath was able to name this stunning truth: you are the Messiah—in his next demonstrated how blinded he was by his own preconceptions.[iv] No one, Peter included, expected a suffering and dying Messiah even though Jesus has been as plain as he could possibly be. And so Peter takes it on himself to explain to Jesus the errors of his ways.
The way to wholeness, the way to victory, the way to life, so says conventional wisdom, is power and might. Human history underscores this again and again. But Jesus understood that this will never get us where we need to go. It will never change a thing.
If you wish to save your life, you must lose it.
Now, to be clear, carrying your cross is not an act of giving up. It is not an act of apathy or despair. It is a way that affirms at every corner, and up every steep grade that life is of ultimate value, that it is sacred, that it is not to be thrown away. It is a way that affirms that if any life is diminished, if any life is dismissed then they all are.
TIME Magazine’s newest issue is entirely devoted to the opioid epidemic in the United States—a devastating tragedy that has taken as many lives as all our recent wars combined. And it has led for the first time in our history to a decline in life expectancy in this country over the last two years.
Jason Merrick’s story of opioid abuse is among many that are featured in the issue. “I thought I was the bad guy,” he says,
The one who ran through everyone’s life, blew through everything. Finally, one day I had what we often refer to as the moment of clarity, where I admitted to my significant other that I had a problem, and I did not know what to do. I fully expected her to sever all ties and no longer speak to me. But she said, “Jason, I want you to get the help that you deserve.” And that broke down the barrier to treatment, to recovery.[v]
There is surely something about the power of compassion in finding that tipping point in which people find their way to healing. For Jason, it was this one who saw him, who affirmed his value, who asserted that he deserved to get help.
“I had to come to terms with the shame and guilt surrounding the wreckage of my past,” Jason explains.
The lives I had impacted, the wasted time. In recovery I realized that I can use the most disgraceful, embarrassing moments in my past to empathize with other men who are coming through the program. It was almost magical—the shame became something that I could use. My past has become one of my most valuable assets in helping people today.
Jason was featured in TIME not as an addict, but as a counselor who had turned his cross into service for other. To deny self, you see, is not to diminish self. It is to move toward others. It is to expand the sense I have of my own value to that of others. It is to get past self as I live toward larger purposes.
These Stoneman Douglas high schoolers are carrying the cross of their own tragedy, but what they carry is not just for themselves. It is for all who have suffered from this crazy, broken reality of ours. It is for the children of Sandy Hook and Columbine and countless other acts of violence, and it is for a future hope for all of us that begins to discover again that we all deserve to get help. We all deserve a life free from the violence that greed and callous disregard breeds.
I think that is, in essence, what these astonishing high school kids are doing as they have refused to be dismissed and intimidated and sidelined. You see, they have no power by most measures. They can’t vote. They have minimal income.
And yet, they do. Their power is in their suffering and in their response to it. Their power is a moral power that is rooted in their willingness to speak not just for themselves, but for a world that desperately needs to be mended—refusing to return violence with violence, acting with respect toward those who have dismissed them, and recognizing that this ancient way of cross-bearing is not one we ever take alone. This way is a march toward freedom that we take together with the crucified one leading the way to new life.
[i] See Clare Lombardo’s “’It’s Not Just A Story. It’s Our lives’: Student Journalists In Parkland” NPR News, February 22, 2018. Retrieved on February 23, 2018 from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/02/22/587754623/student-journalists-at-marjory-stoneman-douglas-it-s-not-just-a-story-it-s-our-l.
[iii] Mark 8:34-35.
[iv] These insights are drawn from Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 2700-2701). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[v] TIME Magazine. March 5, 2018, p. 51.
St. Andrew Sermons