Pastor Barbara Thrall
In the name of the God who calls us to profound discoveries. Amen.
It happens. Probably not every day but perhaps once a week. You have one of those moments when you say to yourself, “What did he just say? Am I hearing that correctly?” Yogi Berra, famous for the way he twisted language, allowed in an election year that Texas has a lot of electrical votes. He famously said once, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And there was one insight, that could be applied in just about any season, “The future is not what it used to be.” Huh? These are the “what?” moments that come along, and can make us laugh, or at least make us smile and shake our heads.
I have a feeling Abram experienced some serious head-shaking when God first said, “Abram, you and Sarai will be the parents of a great nation.” Abram’s comeback may well have been, “I beg you pardon? I don’t think so. We are nearly a hundred years old, far beyond the time for us to become parents. How can this possibly be?” As the story unfolds, an angel will repeat the news to Sarah and she will laugh out loud. She laughs in God’s face. It’s her own personal head-shaking moment. A baby at my age? Utterly preposterous.
And then Peter, who with the other disciples has watched as Jesus fed 5,000 people on a hillside, and had a conversation afterwards about the meaning of that mass=feeding. Then Peter watched as Jesus healed a blind man and asked, “Who do men say that I am?,” only to have Peter reply, “You are the Christ”. Peter and the others are then being told for the first time that there is something else going on here with this person Jesus. He will not amass an army and overtake the Romans and usher in a new time, not right away. Rather a different revolution is coming and it will start with Jesus, and his own death and rising again. His followers will be pulled into it all. Again we hear from a confused listener, “I beg your pardon? Not a chance that is happening.” Peter’s rejoinder, that he could not possibly accept this as true, was put in its proper place by Jesus as Jesus turns on Peter with those pretty harsh words, “Get behind me, Satan”.
Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction of his own death is not too surprising, is it? I think any one of us would have been brought up short and would have begun to argue. “Surely you don’t mean this. I won’t let that happen to you.” But Jesus puts Peter in his place and the wording there is powerful. Another way to interpret “Get behind me, Satan” is “Walk in my footsteps.” Walk in my footsteps.
I’m sure you’ve walked in somebody’s footsteps before. It’s a game at the beach, trying to match somebody’s footprints in the sand. Lately, you may be following in somebody’s footsteps in the snow, trying to avoid having to break a new way by yourself. Yes, walking behind someone else and trying to match up the footsteps can sometimes be a bit of work. Here, in this moment with Jesus, our Lord is saying that Peter, and by implication all of us, need to be in step/in pace with Jesus. Getting behind him, careful, paying attention, working at it. He is telling us to emulate the one who is going before us, as he leaves those footsteps for us to trace, and to go along with him as he marches to Jerusalem and his plan for our salvation. As Yogi Berra might say, we are going into a future that is not what it used to be.
What God is proposing for Abraham and Sarah, what God is proposing for Jesus and his disciples, what God is proposing for us, often sounds fantastic – that is, the stuff of fantasy. It seems totally impossible and even disturbing and yet, as we well know, and as the Bible makes clear again and again, as history makes clear again and again, God doesn’t always do things the way we expect God might.
He calls the youngest boy in a family from the field, a shepherd out in the wilderness, to be his anointed leader, a warrior whose name will never be forgotten, King David. God calls an enslaved woman in Maryland to set her people free, and Harriet Tubman, after her own escape, made 13 trips back to the South to bring out 70 friends and members of her family, in addition to the 700 slaves she liberated while working for the Union army in the Civil War. God called upon William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament in the early 1800s to be the champion for black men and women who had been kidnapped from Africa and sold into servitude in the colonies. God called upon Mary, a young woman who wasn’t even married yet, to be the vessel for his Son’s human life on earth. In every case, God asks that these people, God asks that we, walk in his footsteps, even when it seems silly or dangerous, or like very, very hard work. Jesus says, “Go along with me, let me lead you, and we will get where we are meant to go.”
In this Lenten season we know that where we are going leads to some hard times, with the lens pointed directly at Good Friday. We have had a hard year, with its own set of losses, disappointments, radical adjustments, and all those moments of “You can’t mean I have to do that. Not go out and see my friends. Have to do meetings and school virtually. Not be with my grandchildren. Not go to church.” These have been challenging crosses to bear, these burdens and personal losses. But by picking up our crosses and following him, Jesus means something more than just the burdens we are bearing, our inconveniences. It means facing something like a death, something that is a profound loss to ourselves or others. That death-like time will not be the complete end of the story, but is difficult nonetheless.
I’m think of a workshop I attended this week on how to help people who are giving care to a loved one with dementia. They bear a particular cross because they are suffering a loss, and they know their loved one is bearing an even greater one. One takeaway from the workshop that seems pretty obvious is that few of us like to ask for help. It helps the caregiver immensely not to have to ask but to simply answer when WE ask, “Would you mind if I brought you dinner tonight? Would you mind if I raked your leaves? Would you mind if I grabbed you something from the store while I’m out?” This is a chance to know we are all walking in the footsteps of Jesus in his merciful care for the sick and lonely. What a time to know that others are walking in the footsteps of Jesus in reaching out to the caregiver.
We think of a group of Christians not far from here, who have come into contact with someone who thought it would feel better to set fire to their church than allow them to worship God together in freedom and in peace. They are bearing a significant cross right now, as they face their loss and contemplate rebuilding, and at the same time they are walking with Jesus into a new day with possibilities they had not imagined. Getting there will be difficult and will be undertaken with great pain, but they, and we, follow a God of abundance, who always, always, leads us to new life.
I dare say many of us know people who have taken up their cross in order to follow Jesus into compassionate detachment from a loved one whose addiction has stunted their growth in so many ways and has caused great deal of personal and family turmoil. Or consider taking up your cross and following Jesus into physical hardship due to injury, disease or illness, and knowing that he walks before you at every turn. Take up your cross and follow Jesus as you mourn the loss of a beloved pastor or a beloved friend, relative or colleague, and rejoice in the new life that God has given them in God’s paradise of heaven.
For all of us, I wonder, is there some way we can dare to take up our cross and laugh? For me, and I would expect for you, there is nothing funny about Jesus’s crucifixion and death, but there is a wry twist in how such a sad and tragic event for Jesus could produce such freedom, such liberation, such closeness to the One who has bid us to follow him wherever he leads. Some days do feel like Good Friday, like déjà vu all over again if you will, and that is why we need to laugh, and many days glow with the light of God’s illumined, bright and beautiful path to new life. Either way, both ways, let us walk in faith with Christ into these days ahead, knowing he wants us there, following behind him all the way, knowing we have a destination that is truly blessed. Amen.