What is woven into the story to justify our privilege and prosperity

Mar 01, 2021   •  

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The Reverend Joe Hubbard

Lent 2 2021

Feb. 28th 2021

Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”

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. 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? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.”

Mark 8:31-38

What truths are we being called to tell despite the risk of rejection?  What Satans must we rebuke to make way for a deeper sense of relationship – a recognition of kinship – that leads to abundant life?

In our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the second temptation of Jesus.  Jesus has just finished a whirlwind feeding and healing tour on the north side of the Sea of Galilee.  He and his disciples are retreating to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his them, “Who do you say that I am?”  Amazingly, his friend Peter answers correctly, “You are the Messiah,” he says, the Christ, the one to deliver God’s people to life.

Our story this morning picks up with that conversation, and Jesus is telling his disciples what it means to be the Messiah, the Christ – what it means to deliver God’s people into life.  He tells them that it won’t look anything like they expected.  Jesus will not be a military leader who will deliver them from the Roman occupation.  He will be the truth-teller who calls his own people to repent and return to relationship.  Jesus tells them the cost of his truth-telling will be to suffer rejection from his people’s elders and leaders.  Mark makes it clear; Jesus is not speaking in parable – this is not symbolic or figurative talk.  And Peter, the one who had just named Jesus as the Messiah, pulls him aside and rebukes him.

Now, I don’t blame Peter, here.  He has a clear idea of what he is expecting from the Messiah who would deliver God’s people into life.  And whatever it may have looked like, it didn’t look like rejection.  Steven Charleston, one-time Bishop of Alaska and member of the Choctaw Nation, describes how, in an “[Indigenous] community built on acceptance and inclusion … exile is the very worst form of punishment” (87).  For Peter, the Messiah was supposed to deliver God’s people from exile, not suffer exile himself.  So Peter pulls Jesus aside and corrects him, something any one of us might do with a friend whose potential we see, even if they cannot.  So, Jesus’ response is a little curious, then, isn’t it?

It is curious, if we hear Jesus talking to Peter.  But what if Jesus is not talking to Peter but to himself?  Mark describes how Jesus, before responding to Peter, turns around and looks back at his disciples, as if he is wondering what the cost would be if he cannot model for his friends how to risk rejection for that deepening of relationship that leads to an abundance of life?  It is a moment when I can hear him asking himself, “Do I really have to do this?” – much as he does on the mountaintop with Satan at the beginning of Mark’s story and exactly as he does at the end of this Gospel in the garden.

Jesus’ struggle here is one I can relate to.  Like him, I was given a name that carried with it a great deal of expectation.  When we first came to seminary, our son Hill asked me for a class project, “Daddy, what does my name mean?”  I told him of how our family has a tradition of naming the eldest son after his father.  I told him how I was named for my father as an eldest son, how my father, being the second-born, was named for his grandfather, a United States senator.  “But Daddy,” he asked, “what does my name mean?”  I started to tell him that his name tells the story of who he is and what he will be, because that is what I was told growing up.

You see, I come from a part of the world where your name says a lot, not just about who you are but where you come from and where you are going.  In my family, like most other “old Montgomery” families, the eldest son carries his father’s name, and with it he carries the expectation to master his father’s profession, improve upon his father’s reputation, and advance the family legacy. The weight of a family’s history and its future is saddled on a boy’s shoulders, often before he has even moved out of the house.  My family had been in Montgomery, Alabama for eight generations, and among its patriarchs were lawyers, a federal judge, even a United States Senator.  By the time I went off to college, it had been ingrained in me that I was to carry on the family legacy of law and politics.  And I did.  But I didn’t find life there.

If I had done a little digging, I might have gotten some idea as to why.  This past Fall, after my grandmother (the Senator’s daughter) died, I was cleaning out her house, and I found this lock box, full of old pictures, old letters, newspaper clippings, and most surprising, some old deeds.  This one caught my eye.  A deed dated 1877, from the Senator’s grandfather to his brother, selling his property to satisfy his war debt. It conveys “A plantation of about 2,400 acres, about 16 miles from Montgomery, known as the Jones Place.”  In an instant I knew for certain what I had long wondered: the truth about my family’s privilege and prosperity was that it had been built on the backs of enslaved persons forced to plow stolen land.  Land stolen, as we have recently learned, from Ashley’s great-grandmother’s people after they were force-marched to Oklahoma.  So, Hill’s question rings in my ears: “What does my name mean?”

I wonder if, in that pause after Peter’s rebuke, Jesus thought about what it meant to be a “Messiah” – to tell the hard truths that had to be told in order to lead his people to life.  I wonder if, in that moment, he weighed the risk of rejection that comes with telling the truth.  I wonder if, when looking back at his disciples, he thought about the risk he was asking them to shoulder in calling them to be truth-tellers.  Was he tempted to take the easy way out?  To go along with the expectations of his friends and family and followers, to tell them what they wanted to hear?  I wonder if the “Satan” he is calling out is not actually Peter.  I wonder if the Satan he is calling out is the one that followed him up the mountain and down into the garden – that same one that told him he could have it all and it wouldn’t cost him a thing.  After all, he was a “Son of David.”  I wonder if it is the same Satan that told me I could have it all, and convinced me that it wouldn’t cost me, that I was entitled to it, that it was my birthright.

Like Jesus, I find myself having to rebuke a Satan that my people have so woven into their story to justify their privilege and prosperity that they cannot see it.  It is a Satan of White exceptionalism that afforded me opportunities funded by generational wealth built on the backs of stolen people working stolen land.  Jesus, I think, was calling out a similar sense of exceptionalism, or “chosen-ness,” in his own people.  He was telling them truths they did not want to hear, truths that did not fit in the stories they had passed down for generations.  Jesus was telling his people that God’s chosen-ness was not just for the “sons of David,” that God chooses all God’s people – all peoples, tongues, tribes, and nations are exceptional.  It was a risky truth to tell.  And, it was a truth that got him killed.  As Charleston observes, “Jesus “risk[s] rejection and even exile.  [He] accept[s] that risk for a higher purpose: the ultimate value of kinship,” a kinship between all peoples and their Creator that leads abundant life.

My friends, I believe we are in a unique time in history.  At a time when the Satan of White Exceptionalism is rioting in our streets and laying siege to our governments and slaying our children of color, we are invited to embrace Jesus’ call to be truth-tellers.  At a time when our church is having to come to terms with the poison fruits of its own theologies of chosenness, we are being invited to rebuke our Satans that silence the truth that we are all God’s chosen.  At a time when the generational wealth of our church is at risk, we are being invited to resist the temptation to save our privilege and prosperity.  We are being invited to risk rejection – indeed, risk our lives – for the sake of the good news that we are God has chosen us all.

So, this Lent, let us rebuke our Satans that silence the truth that we are all chosen, that we might repent and return to relationship and enter the kinship that leads to abundant life.