Get Behind Me!

Exodus 3:1–15; Matthew 16:21–28, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on September 03, 2023

Does anyone else wash and reuse plastic Ziplock bags in their house? The truth is, no one in our family wants to do the annoying chore of scrubbing, rinsing, and hanging the bags up to dry. So those pesky bags pile up. Each night when we clean up the supper dishes, we tuck a few more dirty bags into the pile at the edge of the sink. Until . . . they number in the dozens and we just can’t avoid the project any longer. Then it’s time to squabble over whose turn it is to do the despised job. Still, despite all the hassle, we agree that we don’t really want to just throw away the bags after one use. Reusing these sturdy bags is one small act of resistance to our family’s enmeshment in the problem of single-use plastics. It is one way we can push back against the mindset of disposability that distorts our relationship with the earth.

I tell this little story to illustrate what I think the saying of Jesus, “Take up your cross and follow me,” means in our everyday life; I don‘t see the cross as a symbol that glorifies suffering. Instead, it speaks about resistance to the powers that cause suffering. Taking up our cross means resisting forces that diminish life, deny freedom, and destroy community. Taking up our cross means engaging in a non-violent fight for the world we hope to inhabit. This struggle has its costs—from minor annoyances like washing plastic bags to much more serious and life-threatening consequences. And yet, through this struggle we have everything to gain. Nothing short of life itself.

This morning’s Gospel passage is a continuation of last week’s story. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” Peter declared. And Jesus replied, “On this rock I will build my church.” The name Peter means “rock”; and so, with this play on words, Jesus was affirming the centrality of Peter’s faith in creating a community of followers. In today’s reading, however, it quickly becomes clear that Jesus’ idea of what the Messiah should be and do was radically different from Peter’s. In Jesus’ mind, it was necessary for the Messiah to go to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews, the place in which the religious leaders of the day were held captive to Roman occupation. Like the prophet Moses before him, Jesus had to confront the pain that burdened the lives of his people. He had to tell the truth in love, to perform acts of healing and to organize the community to share resources and offer care. He realized that suffering and death were inevitable consequences of this resistance to empire’s ways of scarcity, fear, and division. And yet he also knew that such resistance would unleash divine power capable of raising his movement from the dead. Literally, God would cause Jesus and his followers to stand up again. God would reinvigorate the community and its values so that it would become an unstoppable force of change. 

“God forbid, it, Lord, this must never happen to you!” Peter protested. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus rebuked him. Satan, in Hebrew thought, is not exactly the evil one. He is the tester, the tempter. Peter, playing the role of Satan, was forcing Jesus to choose his loyalties; would he embrace the path of the cross or would he look for a way out? In those words ,“Get behind me,” I hear that Jesus wanted to let go of the expectation that the Messiah would change the world by force. And I also hear that Jesus still wanted Peter behind him. He wanted Peter as his follower. Yes, Peter was a wild card, the rock of the church one moment and a stumbling block the next, and yet Jesus trusted him, loved him, and wanted to stay in relationship with him.

And Jesus extends to all of us this invitation to get behind him, to go where he leads, to join Peter as flawed yet faithful disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross has become many things through the millennia: a decoration, a sign of devotion, a justification for crusades and colonization, a badge of supremacy and superiority. I do not believe any of this is what Jesus intended. In his time, the Romans crucified thousands of people in order to suppress resistance. The cross, in Jesus’ time, meant shame, agony, and torture. The cross existed to instill terror and maintain control. The cross is the gallows on which 38 Dakota men were lynched on the day after Christmas in Mankato. The cross is the lamppost in Duluth that held the swaying bodies of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. The cross is the knee that stole breath and life from George Floyd.

I’ve been working my way through the 1619 Project. In the preface, the creator of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, explains how surprised she was, as a young Black woman in her teens, to learn that the first vessel bearing enslaved people from Africa landed in the colony of Virginia in 1619. She writes: 

They’d arrived one year before the iconic ship carrying the English people who got the credit for building it all. . . What would it mean to reframe our understanding of US history by considering 1619 as our country’s origin point, the birth of our defining contradictions? . . . I wanted people to know the date 1619 and to contemplate what it means that slavery predates nearly every other institution in the United States. I wanted them to be transformed by this understanding, as I have been. (pp. xix, xxii)

On this Labor Day weekend, I’m particularly pondering an essay in the book by Matthew Desmond, “Capitalism.” In it, Desmond traces the ways in which the desire to protect the institution of slavery has shaped our nation’s economy with the result, as he puts it, that “The United States stands today as one of the most unequal societies in the history of the world.” He offers many concrete examples of how this process occurred. In the formation of labor unions, for instance, Desmond explains:

Capitalists leveraged slavery and its racial legacy to divide workers—free from unfree, white from Black—diluting their collective power. Instead of resisting this strategy, white-led unions embraced it until it was too late, undercutting the movement and creating conditions for worker exploitation and inequality that exist to this day. (p. 188)

I understand why Peter was horrified, confused, and offended by Jesus’ insistence that it was necessary for the Messiah to face the cross. It ought to disturb any of us when the symbolism of the cross is used to reinforce patterns of harm: to glorify suffering as God’s will; to insist that victims of abuse stay silent; to strengthen the very structures of oppression Jesus sought to eradicate. Through the life and ministry of Jesus, however, God has transformed this instrument of cruelty and victimhood into a powerful sign of resistance. 

Taking up our cross means refusing to accept lives that are stifling, small, scared, bland, and driven by scarcity. It means telling a more complete and more true story about who we are and who we can be. It means teaching our children to resist too. Pointing out to them, for instance, the pervasive imagery of darkness as evil and light as good, showing them how that works to make us think that people with dark skin are bad or we should be afraid of them. It means stepping out of the grind to claim the rest, creativity, and divinity of us all. It means regenerative rather than exploitative relationships, and mutual aid. It means washing our bags—in others words, finding our small and humble places in a powerful movement of change. 

Friends, let’s make the cross our own, claim it as a symbol of resistance. A sign that we are engaged in a non-violent fight for the world we want to live in. A promise that out of losing will come finding, that from the ashes and the tears, life and liberation will arise again. Amen.