“Tree of Life”

There’s a simple getting-to-know-you game called, “Have you ever?” It involves questions such as, “Have you ever been ice skating?” Everyone who has been ice-skating, raise your hand. “Have you ever flown a plane?” “Have you ever made kimchi at home?” Someone else want to throw out a question?

Ok, I’m going to ask a few more “Have you evers” but you don’t need to raise your hands… just think these over. Have you ever intervened when someone was being bullied at school or work? Have you ever been a caregiver – for a person who was sick or disabled or dying? Have you ever shared something that is really, really important to you? Have you ever chosen to live simply so that you could be more generous in giving to others? Have you ever used the power of your voice or influence to address an injustice? Have you ever listened, really listened to someone else, so hard and so well, that you completely set aside your own agenda, feelings, and judgments?

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus urges those who wish to become his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross.” Jesus does not speak about the cross as an oppressive burden that we must carry. Instead it is something we choose to take up if and when we decide to follow him. The cross is the way that Jesus died, but much more importantly, it is the way he lived. When we take up our cross, it is a sacrifice made freely, in love. It is a willing act of sharing in the brokenness of our world. It is a courageous standing against the forces of harm and evil. It is the crack through which God’s light shines through. It is the blooming of a pole of death into a tree life.

In January of 2007, Tina Fineberg of The New York Times reported on the story of Wesley Autrey. He was waiting for the subway with his daughters when a man suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks. “The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. ‘I had to make a split decision,’ Mr. Autrey said. So he made one, and leapt. Mr. Autrey lay on the other man, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time. Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease.” Both men survived.[1] Autrey interpreted his actions this way: “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help . . . . I did what I felt was right.”[2]

Think for a moment about those “Have you evers …” Could those represent times when you have chosen to take up the cross? Were they sacrifices made in love? Did they come with consequences? Maybe you didn’t face the possibility of death, but was there something you had to risk or relinquish for the sake of what you believed was right? Your time, your autonomy, your comfort or security, your job or your reputation? Were those risks worth it? Did they give life to you or someone else?

A couple of weeks ago, the Atlantic published an article, “The Miracle of Minneapolis” by Derek Thompson. The author portrays our city as place of where wealth and success are broadly shared. He cites business tax policies that distribute revenue between richer and poorer areas, and the development of affordable housing in all parts of the city. He writes: “The Twin Cities’ housing and tax-sharing policies have resulted in lots of good neighborhoods with good schools that are affordable for young graduates and remain nice to live in even as their paychecks rise. ”[3] As numerous rebuttals of this article have pointed out, this narrative has a serious flaw: it may be true for white residents of Minneapolis, but it is not true for people of color in our city. A report from 24/7 Wall Street named Minnesota as the 2nd worst state for Black Americans to live in, saying, “A typical black household in Minnesota earned less than half the median income of white households in 2013, well below the 62.3% nationwide… While 15% of black workers in the state were unemployed in 2013, fewer than 5% of the total workforce did not have a job, a gap nearly twice as large as the national gap”[4]

The cross was an instrument the Roman Empire used to torture and silence those who dared rise against it. But this cross is not just ancient history. It keeps on reinventing itself into the present day. The cross is the gallows on which 38 Dakota men were executed on the day after Christmas, 1862, in Mankato, MN. The cross is the lynching of black men throughout the Jim Crow period, including Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, who were hanged by a mob in Duluth in June of 1920. The cross is the mass incarceration of people of color today—1 out of 106 white males are in prison in comparison with 1 of 36 Hispanic males and 1 of 15 black males.[5]

This afternoon, our church is hosting an event in which two African American pastors will share their stories of being black in Minnesota and their thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe that for those of us who identify as white, a choice to take up the cross of racial injustice begins with listening, just listening—listening with our defenses down and our need to self-justify turned off—listening to a narrative that interrupts the account of white supremacy that grounds and shapes reality as we have experienced it. If we can listen to this counter-narrative, and believe it, and take it into the deep place inside ourselves where change can happen, that will be enough. The God of the cross, the Creator who made us to be both broken and whole, can work with that.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus and Peter nearly came to blows. It’s not hard to understand Peter’s perspective. In chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel alone, Jesus demonstrated his astonishing power by feeding a crowd of thousands, standing up to his opponents, and curing a blind man. Peter was inspired; he was amazed; he was ready to follow Jesus anywhere so that together they could change the world. And in Peter’s mind that meant a battle to overthrow the Roman government and free their nation from its oppressive rule. “You’re the Messiah!” he proclaimed. Peter was ready to follow Jesus anywhere…except the cross. Because that did not compute with his definition of Messiah. Jesus would take up the humiliating, agonizing death of a criminal or slave? Peter didn’t get it and he wouldn’t accept it. Jesus explained to Peter that God’s ways are not the same as human ways: “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Again, we encounter the ambiguous and self-contradictory nature of the cross. When we choose to follow Jesus, we will lose something: our security, comfort, wealth, status, maybe even our lives. At the same time we will gain something of much greater value. God will transform the cross—the tree of torture, oppression and death, and the ultimate sign of our brokenness—into a tree of life —a sign of love, healing, courage and faith.

May it be so. Amen.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/nyregion/03life.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/nyregion/03life.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-miracle-of-minneapolis/384975/

[4] http://247wallst.com/special-report/2014/12/09/the-worst-states-for-black-americans/5/

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/drug-war-mass-incarceration_n_3034310.html