I preached this sermon mid-way through Lent at the First Presbyterian Church of Hoosick Falls on Mark 8: 31-38. The story of Kayla Mueller was fresh in my mind and the haunting questions of faith, violence and war. This sermon is the beginning of my tribute to her and her commitment to peace, nonviolence and the complicated way of the Cross.
A few weeks ago I began to notice through some of the posts of friends who have worked with me over the years in world mission and peacemaking about a person I did not know, Kayla Mueller. They were telling about how they knew her, about how heartbroken they were to hear that she was gone, that we must pray for her devastated family. Of course, this is the young woman who a few weeks ago was killed in an airstrike, targeted at the militant group ISIS in Syria by the Jordanian military. She was 25 years old.
What I didn’t know until that day was that Kayla had been a college student in Arizona and come to faith through a campus ministry program led by a Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Kathleen Day. What I also didn’t know until that day was that it was during those formative years, her involvement with a campus ministry program helped her to hear the call of Christ in her life in a new way and helped put her on the path that led her to many different humanitarian interventions and ministries in the United States and around the world. What I didn’t know until that day was that there was a group of Presbyterians who were working quietly for the last year and a half to find a way to secure her release and to support her family. Kayla died a person of deep faith, she wrote in her final letter that was able to get to her family that, “I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else….and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”
So why share this story today, as we gather for worship in the safety of this place, so far removed from the places in this world that are filled with so much horror and pain? Why share sad or upsetting stories in a place like a church building—that is a place of comfort for so many of us?
Because in many ways—this sort of pain, dislocation and separation is what Jesus is addressing in our reading from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ disciples had been with him in his ministry, had seen his miracles, his healing—had marveled at the growing crowds that were following Jesus (and them) around. The disciple’s spirits were being lifted. After all the disciples were not at the top of the heap in their society when Jesus called them to follow him. Most of them were fisherman.
But now they were with Jesus and they were part of a movement!
People were following!
Things were happening!
And they were a part of it all!
But Jesus has something else he wants to say, something else he wants to communicate. He wants to tell the disciples about how he is going to die, and the sort of death that might await them as well. He tells them that he will suffer, his teachings will be rejected—he will be tortured and forced to “take up his cross” which is a clear way of saying that he will be crucified. The disciples know what that is—crucifixion was a common practice by the Roman government that controlled their world. Criminals, dissenters, anyone who did not stay in line was crucified. They were made to drag the instrument on which they died to the place the government selected, usually a street corner, a crossroads, the scene of crime they committed, or in front of their home. There they would be nailed to the cross and left to die in front of their community and family, and the body left for days as a reminder not just of whatever it was that they did that was not acceptable to the military government—but as a threat and a reminder to everyone around them that you should not try to defy this government, or stand up and be different in any way. The major of the community in this time lived in a state of constant and unimaginable trauma and fear, paralyzed by their lack of powerlessness.
Perhaps the disciples who were following Jesus thought that by following him they could escape this terrible reality that they had known since childhood.
Maybe they believed that they were different because they were with him.
Or that they could be part of “something” because their lives’ reality was that they were born into a place where they would never be “anything.”
It is no wonder that Peter protests against Jesus.
The news is not good.
What happened to miracles and healings and crowds of followers?
We did not drop everything to follow you Jesus—so that we would end up on a cross!
One of my good friends told me after Kayla died a few weeks ago that he was devastated by the news. He had worked in campus ministry programs and sent many college students off on international and domestic mission trips that changed their lives and helped them make the decision to engage in transformational ministries and grow in their faith in Jesus—linking the two. I feel great pride in knowing that some of the youth I have worked with over the years have done the same, one of them is serving a two-year stint right now with the Peace Corps in Africa. I saw her mom a few weeks ago from the first church I served and I am glad that some of the ministry she participated in helped her to make that decision as a follower of Jesus to use her skills, her intellect and her capacity to deal with some of the hurts of this world.
But as my friend said about Kayla, “Who else did I train to go and engage the powers of this world in the name of Jesus Christ that is out there in the world and in harm’s way? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? But how would I manage if I was her campus minister—and it was I who set her on that course?”
That is our message as the Church, isn’t it? To follow Jesus.
But that is also very scary.
It’s not an easy calling.
And if you go all the way, it is bound to lead to the sort of trouble Kayla—and others like her have found.
What does it mean as a church, as local congregations when we decide to form people in the life-changing, world-altering, Cross-centered faith in Jesus Christ?
I have heard others criticize Kayla’s decisions,
“Didn’t she know she was going into a war zone?”
“Why didn’t she deal with things here in the United States where it is safer?”
Why leave our country?
It is easy of course to sit back after something has happened and question it or to wonder why someone made the choices they did.
Our reading for today from Marks’ Gospel isn’t a bunch of good news.
Today is not the feel-good Jesus we tend to expect or tend to like.
Today we receive Jesus exactly how he is:
You cannot follow me without taking up your Cross.
You cannot follow me without making sacrifices that will lead to your death, your ridicule, your exclusion from the society of which you are a part.
You cannot follow me if you take the easy way out.
What would Jesus have us do as those who follow him today, 2000 years later?
We still live in a world that is full of the sort of injustices, inequalities and addiction to power and violence as he did then.
So what should we do?
How should we be?
It seems to me that our calling today is to figure out one place of injustice, inequality, and addiction to violence and make that our #1 calling. No one of us can do it all, but we each have the capacity to dig in deep and make one thing our way of saying, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ! Here I make my stand!” For the young woman, Kayla Mueller, she made her declaration. It cost her this life—but she brought healing, hope and restoration to countless people in forgotten corners of this broken world. They now have that Spirit of Christ in their hearts, their homes, and their communities. They understand and know that even in the midst of it all they were not forgotten.
This is why the crowds flocked to Jesus. He was ministering to people who were living in situations as desperate, lonely and filled with fear as so many in our world today are. He was offering hope. He was offering relationship. And he was offering love. He was telling them that they were the ones that God preferred.
So where is that community today that is suffering great injustice that is close to you?
How can you be Jesus for it?
What can you do to stir up holy trouble and discontent with the powers that be that put people or the Created order into that place?
How can you be Jesus for it?
How can you take up your Cross?
Where can you take up your Cross?
It is the essential Lenten question Jesus asks us not only in this season but every day of our lives. Let us pray….
God of peace,
let us your people know,
that at the heart of turbulence
there is an inner calm that comes
from faith in you.
Keep us from being content with things as they are,
that from this central peace there may come a creative compassion,
a thirst for justice,
and a willingness to give of ourselves in the spirit of Christ.