Sometimes I feel sorry for the Jesus we meet in the gospels. Why? Because even those who were closest to him seemed not to have understood him or his message very well.
We see that this morning. Our lesson is short but twice—twice—Jesus’ inner circle struggles to comprehend his core teachings.
First Jesus explains—something he will do again—that his path will involve betrayal and death, not applause and accolades. When he says this, Jesus gets blank stares. We can almost hear the gospel writer sigh as he describes the disciples’ response. “But they did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Not long after this, Jesus overhears his disciples arguing. Jesus knows they’re playing a grown-up version of king of the mountain but plays it cool, asking what they were debating. They’re as silent as schoolboys caught with gum in their mouths. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus insists.
If this was the end of the term and this passage the final exam, Jesus’ students, his disciples would not get passing grades. Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection would what Jesus had been saying and modeling have made sense.
Only later would Jesus’ friends and followers come to see, believe, and trust that the love God has placed in us and wants to awaken in us refuses to retreat or even consider retreat as an option, even when, especially when, suffering and death loom on the horizon.
Similarly, only after Jesus returned to God would his friends and followers succeed in sloughing off their social conditioning around what constitutes true greatness. Only later would they see that the biggest person in the room is not the one who grabs the spotlight but rather is the one who consistently shines a light on others and their needs.
Jesus’ teachings are timeless. Consider the remembering we’ve been doing as a nation as we marked the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11.
In our recollecting, we found example after example of people who, out of pure love for others, rushed toward danger. These individuals put a premium on the lives and safety of others, and so sprang into action, even as this placed their own bodies and well-being on the line.
When the heart is full of love, there’s no turning away, no hedging bets.
People of all faith and no faith know this. It’s fundamental to Jesus’ message, highlighted in Mark today. The love God has planted within us is a love that leans in—even when the stakes are high. It makes others, not ourselves, the object of our efforts.
Moreover, that love flips the social script, revealing the supreme importance of those who have long been regarded as the last and the least. Jesus underscores this when he draws children into his arms—they were the most invisible humans in his day.
What Jesus highlights today is what the late scholar Marcus Borg would call “alternative wisdom.” It runs counter to what society teaches and rewards.
Most of us recoil from involvements that feel risky, even when we know truth is on our side. Don’t believe me? Try being a progressive in Montrose! Most of us choose self-preservation over self-differentiation. We tend to keep our heads down rather than stick our necks out.
This is how we keep from being crucified, metaphorically speaking. It’ also how we ensure that very little changes—a choice Jesus was simply unwilling to make.
In the first chapter of his book, The Underground Church, which some of us are reading together, Rev. Robin Meyers stresses that the Jesus who lived and breathed, who taught and served, who chose love at every turn, even unto death, this God-man of ours was believed by many (even his family) to be off-kilter or worse, outright mad.
And that makes sense. Because when the world’s values are the opposite of God’s, when love and justice are not our highest priorities, then everything is convoluted.
The way to peace is war, nobodies are expendable, winning and wealth are everything. In a world gone mad, the sanest of men—Jesus—would certainly come across like a nutjob.
While those around him prized power, privilege, and prestige, while his culture esteemed affluence, appearance, and acquisition, Jesus saw all of life through the lens of love. This governed his perceptions and informed his choices every day of his too-brief life.
Some wrote Jesus off as a misfit; others saw him as a threat.
Even those in Jesus’ inner circle were regularly confused and confounded by him. They would listen, then rub their eyes, trying to see as Jesus did, succeeding only occasionally and not for very long. Only later would they come to see as Jesus had. Only later would they move in the world as Jesus had.
If Robin Meyers is right when he says that faith is about a way of being not a pursuit of gathering up correct beliefs, then what is Jesus asking of us? To lean in the direction of the socially and culturally difficult, even when it involves risk. Especially then. Jesus is asking us to trust that love indeed wins, even when that victory seems unlikely. He is asking us to place others before ourselves, and to keep our eyes trained on the far edges of society—because that’s where God’s most important people are to be found.
Jesus is asking this not just when it’s convenient or comfortable. He’s asking us to make this a lifestyle, a way of being in a world turned upside down, a world short on love and justice.
We did what Jesus asks of his followers last Sunday in Grand Junction. By participating in the Pride Parade and the festival that followed, we took risks for love. We made it our priority to step in the direction of those our world too often refuses to celebrate.
In a part of the country where homophobia is still far too prevalent, it’s a real risk to step out into the streets to express a divergent point of view—that God loves us all, no matter whom we love or how.
In a part of the country where churches are quick to promise God’s condemnation, to stand out in public as ardent Christian allies of our LGBTQ siblings is to move in a direction that can feel a little or even a lot unsafe.
Love does not shy away from the challenging path. If Jesus teaches anything, it’s this.
Sure, it would have been easier to stay home and send up prayers and good wishes for those taking part in Pride. Sure, it would have been more convenient to worship online rather than in the streets. But the love made real in Jesus does not shy away from the challenging path. And it does not hesitate to make those who have been relegated to the margins and the shadows a priority, a focus of our willing servanthood.
Even two thousand years later, Christians can misunderstand Jesus’ teaching about the inevitability of his suffering and death. We have made it about him and his fate instead of seeing his teaching for what it is: a pattern for living, a way of being that refuses to let anything that is not love attempt to have the last word.
Colorado West Pride is in our rearview mirror now. And there are new challenges ahead.
A Women’s March is happening in Montrose on October 2nd and we will want to be there, even if our knees shake because we feel exposed. We will want to be there because Jesus would be there if he could. He would be there to support women’s health, bodily autonomy, and rights—and surely he would want to to show this support at a most precarious time in American history.
So that’s the next risk we can take together. To step out of our homes and into the streets of a community that might view us as wrong or worse, as crazy as some in Jesus’ community thought he was.
Then the following month we will be challenged again. With Xavi Saenz and Delta Pride acting as program hosts, Community Spirit will sponsor Montrose County’s very first Transgender Day of Remembrance on Monday, November 22nd at the Ute Indian Museum. That night, we will stand in solidarity with our nation’s most vulnerable population—those who are transgendered. Together with members of the community we will grieve the senseless violence and hate that have been visited upon that community simply because they have the audacity to exist. And we will gather up our resolve and courage to help ensure that love, not hate or fear or indifference, wins in the trans community.
In his book, Robin Meyers insists that the faith Jesus calls us to have, the faith he sought to nurture in us, is not a head thing but a heart thing. We imagine that faith is equivalent to assent, that it’s about believing certain things to be true.
But no. Faith is fundamentally about trust, about a dynamic relationship with God that strengthens, steadies, and emboldens us. Faith is about trusting God will hold us no matter what comes our way, no matter what risks we take in love.
Jesus did what he did not because of convictions he held. Jesus did what he did because he was tethered to love, to God. And we will do what we will do, we will go where we will go, because we too trust the direction God’s love calls us.
Because we trust the love that will not let us go, even when the path, as it did with Jesus, opens onto some hard going.
Let us pray: O God, walk with us. Guide our steps. Strengthen and embolden us. Be our vision so that when others sees us, they see the lengths to which Christ’s love is willing to go.