Scripture Mark 8:31-38 NRSV
31 Then he 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.”
34 He 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those 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.”
On February 7th the Polish President put his signature on a piece of legislation that outlaws blaming Poland’s government or its citizens for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. Over 3 million Polish Jews were killed in camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibór, andTreblinka. And while it is true that no Polish nationals were employed at any of these camps, the camps were built only after years of Nazis stripping Polish Jews of their rights and property, which the Polish people did know about. Many were able to move into much nicer homes because the Jewish families who owned them were carried away, into the ghettos at first, then into the camps. They knew whose homes they were occupying - these had been their neighbors and friends. And people who lived near the death camps knew something bad was going on, but not exactly what that something was. Somehow they were able to convince themselves that it didn’t affect them. And now, 70+ years later, the government would like to deny that any of those things happened - they would like to claim complete victimhood.
With that said - there are nearly 7,000 names of Polish Christians on Israel’s list of the Righteous of the Nations, Holocaust rescuers, the largest number from any nation. Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in rescue at up to 3 million, and credit them with saving upwards of 450,000 Jews from certain death. The rescuers knew that the penalty for helping the Jews was death, not just for themselves but for their entire families!, but they persisted. So, although there was some complicity by Polish citizens, at the same time there was great courage and sacrifice by Polish citizens. It’s important to recognize and accept both truths - both sides to a situation. It’s always important to recognize truth - however hard and unpleasant it may be.
And . . . As a sort of “the rest of the story” aside . . . yesterday the Polish government announced they would not open criminal proceedings against those found breaking the new Holocaust law until Poland’s constitutional court reaches a decision on the legislation.
Some years back I asked a friend how her son was doing. I’d heard he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had started chemo. She snapped at me, “Don’t use that word. Don’t ever use that word. If he has that, it means he is going to die.” She also didn’t know that there was any such thing as a cancer survivor, until I told her that I was. So her choice up to that moment had been to deny the truth of her son’s illness.
And Peter - classic denial. “Rabbi, don’t say those things! If you talk about bad things happening they’ll come true! You should only talk about good things, happy things. Don’t let all these people think you’re worried.” And Jesus, “Peter, tempting as it may be to think that everything is going to be wonderful, I know better. And we have to accept the truth, no matter how hard it is. We cannot deny what we don’t like, and we can’t change the reality that faces us. So stop tempting me to ignore reality. Stop tempting me to take the easier, softer way. I need to go forward along this path, as hard at is may be to travel.” (All this dialogue, of course, comes from The Gospel according to Maria.)
It’s easy for me to see Peter’s denial, and Jesus’ call to accept reality, because I have always been pretty good at denial. I remember decades ago - around 1975 - I called one of those helplines and said I thought I might have a drug problem because I was spending my grocery money on drugs. They said, “If you’re still worried about food, you don’t have a problem.” So I immediately started obsessing over always having lots and lots of canned goods, because that would mean I didn’t have a problem. Maybe 10 years later, I filled out one of those “Are you an alcoholic?” questionnaires, and had no difficulty proving to myself I was perfectly fine. “Do you ever drink alone? No. The cat is always home with me.” See? No problem. Eventually, however, I was able to break through the denial and accept that I did, in fact, have a problem. Then, and only then, I was able to begin to change my life, with lots of help from God and from people God put into my life. That’s not to say that I’m still not prone to denial when I don’t want to deal with a situation. It’s just that today I can (eventually) recognize it for what it is, and I can move beyond that to acceptance of reality - no matter how much I don’t like the hard truths I have to face and accept.
Jesus goes on to speak a phrase that, I think, we maybe haven’t paid enough attention to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I think most of us only hear the “take up your cross part.” Many of us hear Jesus urging us to accept whatever bad things come along - pain, sorrow, grief - and carry that with us as our own personal cross. We talk about the bad things in our lives as being our cross to bear. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus meant here. Cancer, arthritis, chronic pain - not crosses. These are medical conditions, and there are treatments. Addiction. Poverty. Oppression. Not crosses to be borne, but realities we must first accept as reality, then work to change and heal.
In denying ourselves we take up our cross and walk with Jesus. I was once told (not by anyone here) that because I was the pastor, I was expected to make sacrifices for my congregation - sleep less, work more hours, do without family time and days off in order to serve the congregation better. That’s not actually true. (And you may be sure that I was really happy when that person decided to leave the congregation I was serving at the time.) I am not the professional Christian who is supposed to do all those things in your place. What I am supposed to do is model discipleship, and help all of you learn what it means to take up your crosses. Peter is not the only one who had to face reality and accept the hard truths. Each of us is called to do that.
Lent is the perfect time to remember that we are called to walk alongside Jesus, accepting the hard truths that we would much prefer to ignore. For these forty days we are reminded of all that Jesus did, and all that he called his disciples to do. We are given examples and directions on how to live and how to follow him on his journey. We are called to do as he did, to speaking truth to power, healing the sick, comforting those who suffer, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, standing alongside the oppressed. We will each find different ways to do that, different ways to deny ourselves, different ways to serve as Jesus’ disciples - followers, students. Some of us do these things through our work - social workers, teachers, police, public servants of all kinds whose focus is on helping others. Some of us write publicly, or make financial donations to agencies that help the particular causes that are most important to us, or even join demonstrations. All of us are expected to do our best to become educated on the needs of the people around us, the people in our community that need our help. We carry our devotion to the work of the Church- to loving our neighbor - as a cross along the way - heavy yet at the same time liberating.
In Feasting on the Word, Paul C. Shupe notes that our churches all have crosses in them - big ones, small ones, stained glass ones, wooden and stone ones, even flower covered ones - but all of those crosses represent the cross of Jesus. He suggests it would be a good idea if every church had a multitude of crosses, so that as we leave here on Sunday morning we can pick up our own cross and take it out into the world with us, to our homes and jobs and the grocery store, to where ever we happen to go between now and next Sunday.
And, you know, we can do that. We have all these little pieces of burlap with crosses on them. We gave them to the folks who came on Ash Wednesday, but we can give them out again today. So when you leave today, take one of these from the basket in the narthex. Keep it with you - in your pocket or your wallet - so that you will remember that you, too, are walking with Jesus. You, too, are called to be his disciple. You, too, are called to be His.
So let us stand and sing, accepting our cross and giving ourselves to Jesus, saying to him, “I’m Yours.”