"Brave. Vulnerable. Kind." – Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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. 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.”
I’ve just begun participation in a weekly meeting of what are called “Race Relation Dialogue Circles.” It’s just what it sounds like, a group of about 12 people of different races and ethnicities, who literally sit in a circle, to discuss all sorts of things about race and ethnicity; prejudice and racism in our lives, in our country, and in our world as we experience it.
At our very first meeting, our first order of business was to lay out some ground rules and expectations for our time together. (If you’ve been in a class with me before, or if you’re in one of our new Grace Groups, you have some idea of what these rules and expectations turned out to be.) Stuff like respecting other perspectives and experiences, honoring the confidentiality of what is shared, not monopolizing the conversation, and so on. But, one of my favorite “rules and expectations” we agreed upon was something about letting the group always be a safe place – even when we disagree about something – so that we could allow each other to be brave and vulnerable and kind.
Brave, vulnerable, and kind – at least that’s the translation in my notes of that particular rule and expectation. And I remember thinking – even though I signed up for this… even though I sort of expected it…even though I’ve asked it of so many of you over the years in different ways – the prospect of being brave, and vulnerable, and kind, isn’t always something I’m naturally inclined toward, as strange as that is to admit.
These are ideals, right? Bravery. Vulnerability. Kindness. These are admirable traits to be practiced and modeled. But how often do we sit down – in the presence of strangers – and commit to go searching for ways to be brave, vulnerable, and kind?
Most of the time, we’re brave when we have to be, right? We’re vulnerable when we don’t have a choice a lot of the time, don’t you think? When the crisis comes…when the struggles hit… when we fail the test, drop the ball, or lose the job, or whatever. For too many of us, too much of the time, we don’t go seeking opportunities to be brave or vulnerable or even kind unless or until a situation presents itself or demands that we be those things.
So, sitting around that circle, I sort of wondered if I really wanted to stick with it…to invest in the group…to make this commitment. What if I was surrounded byknuckleheads? What if we disagree more than we agree? What if my words don’t come out right? What if I’m misunderstood? What if I’m even more white and more privileged and more blind to the issues of race than I’m willing to admit? What if this isn’t the safe place it intends to be? What if some of these people are less brave or less vulnerable or less kind than others?
And I wonder if these are like the questions Peter, and Jesus’ disciples, and those crowds wondered about when they heard Jesus’ challenge and call to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow.” It sounds like bravery, vulnerability, and kindness, to me. It’s very much the call and challenge of the Christian life, really. And it’s hard work, plain and simple.
And Jesus makes no bones about it. “…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering… be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes… be killed, and after three days rise again.” He calls out his best friend, Peter, for setting his mind “not on divine things, but on human things.”And he says, to whoever will listen, that “If any want to become … disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.”
Follow him toward suffering. Follow him toward rejection. Follow him toward death. Because “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake, and for the sake of gospel, will save it.” How brave and vulnerable and kind can you be?
But this is what God calls us to do and to be: to deny ourselves; to take up the cross of sacrifice and suffering; to follow God, in Jesus, to places and on behalf of people who give us opportunities to be loving and gracious and forgiving – brave, vulnerable and kind. And if Jesus is asking us to do it – to live this way – the least we can do is to start imagining what that would look like, don’t you think? I don’t think Jesus wants us to sit back and wait for opportunities for all of this to come our way. I think Jesus wants us to follow him into ways of life that make it happen – for us and for the world.
So I wonder what it might look like if we took Jesus seriously. What if we let our faith dream bigger than our fear when it comes to answering this call to self-denial, crosses, and following? What if we let our faith dream bigger than our fear so we really did live in ways that are more brave, and vulnerable, and kind?
Could it mean signing a dotted line and standing up in worship to join the ranks of a new congregation like some of our newest Partners in Mission will do/have done with us today? Sure.
Could it mean giving more money to the General Fund? Volunteering to clean the church? Stepping up to serve in the nursery? Getting out of our proverbial comfort zone and helping with Grace Quest? I think so.
But there’s gotta be even more, don’t you think?
Could it mean eating some crow and asking for forgiveness from that someone you’ve harmed? Or letting your own guard down and extending forgiveness to that someone who’s harmed you? Probably.
And might it lead to bigger things?
Could it mean sponsoring a child in Fondwa, Haiti, for $300 a year?
Or signing up for a mission trip next time we travel there?
Could it mean opening our borders to immigrants for Mexico? Or could it mean opening our homes to refugees from Syria? (That makes Grace Quest and the General Fund seem like small potatoes, doesn’t it?)
Is there something you’ve thought of doing – that you’ve felt the nudge to consider – large or small or somewhere in between – but that you never move in the direction of accomplishing because your fear or doubt or lack of courage and faith won’t let you pursue it? I have. (I’m pretty sure it’s happening in me as I stand before you now!)
I think our fear and our doubt and our lack of courage get the best of us, just like they did for Peter in this morning’s Gospel, when we set our hearts and our minds on earthly things, instead of heavenly things, and the power of God.
I think it’s because, just like Peter, we only hear the earthly stuff , too much of the time, when it comes to Jesus’ call to discipleship. We hear “deny ourselves.” We hear “take up a cross.” We hear “rejection and suffering and struggle and death.” And all of that gets the best of us and we stop, in our tracks, frozen with fear and doubt and uncertainty. Because, just like Peter, we miss the promise of heavenly things and the power of God that Jesus promises along with the rest: because after all of that rejection and suffering and death and whatnot, comes resurrection, does it not?
Because vulnerability leads to power in the hands of God. Sacrifice leads to abundance. The cross leads to an empty tomb, by God’s grace. Death leads to new life, when Jesus gets hold of it.
So let’s imagine and dream about and keep our minds set on heavenly things. Let’s do the hard, holy work of denying our selves – our fears, our doubts and all the rest. Let’s take up a cross – even if it hurts, even if it causes us to struggle, because it causes us to struggle and sacrifice, even. And let’s follow Jesus in brave, vulnerable, kind and gracious ways, expecting God to change us and to transform the world as we know it, into the Kingdom of God, which has been the plan all along.