Mathew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Today I share my thoughts within the backdrop of two significant events. The first being the shooting Jacob Blake by a white policeman, and the subsequent shooting of protesters by a confessed 17-year-old white-supremist. The second is the appointment of Fabiana Pierre-Louis as the only black woman now sitting as a Supreme Court Judge in New Jersey.
The first incident and the subsequent reaction challenged our hope for things to change in the post George Floyd America in terms of policing within our urban communities. Clearly one viewed the disparity in response to an unarmed black man and then to an angry, armed white perpetrator. This evoked a horrible brew of outrage and fear that rippled throughout black America and beyond.
The second incident allows us to view what many would celebrate as tremendous progress as we celebrate the achievements of a brilliant woman of immigrant parents educated in an urban community. Without any aim of reductionism of her achievements, Pierre-Louis’ appointment somehow casts an image of a successful black women who can achieve against a condemned black male who may eventually face her in the criminal justice system.
In many ways it is this irony which can be discovered in the readings for today. We have encountered Moses in the story recorded in Exodus: Chapter 3 having to confront his past and his future during a life changing conversation with a burning bush. Born a Hebrew, raised as an African and now living among Arabs, Moses encounters a God who challenges him to find his true identity; one which is grounded not in nationality, but in a cause. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Gen.3:14)
Moses is now called to lead an epic struggle for the freedom of an oppressed people.
In Mathew’s Gospel, we find Peter at a similar juncture. Flushed with the joys of having been given a new name while in the foothills of Caesarea-Philippi and of being likened to a Rock, Peter now discovers his true calling. We witness him struggling to understand the nature of his identity. Historically, as a method of intimidation and oppression, the Romans would have crosses installed on many of the major roads. Very much as a lynching in the South during Jim crow, these crosses were visceral reminders of the fate which awaits anyone who may challenge the oppressive Roman system.
Jesus points out a way to go beyond the normative response of fear and intimidation and embraces the cross. To embrace the cross rather than fear it, not only blunts its ominous message, but subjects it to the power of God. Thus, Pharaoh in all his might or Roman power in all its glory cannot match the power of God is the message of Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”, says Jesus. To take up a cross is not just about being a Christian in name, but like Moses, taking up the mantle of God, becomes a new form of religious activism. To be a Christian without fervor and activism for righteousness is like a well without water “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Mathew 5:13)
St. Paul in his letter to the Romans sought to provide the Church with the tools for activism against the pervasive evil that it faced. “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) This is not about a kind of privileged christianity which allows many to claim it is about personal salvation. What is prescribed is the total transformation of the society led by those who are willing to carry the cross of love boldly, lovingly, passionately, and uncompromisingly. It is about looking hatred, racism, elitism, and intimidation boldly in the face and declare, “No one or anything is greater than God and His love for His world”. Your identity is fully grounded in your relationship with God through Christ Jesus. At our baptism we were marked as Christ’ very own. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal.3:28) That is the miracle and power of Christianity.
God had to push Moses beyond his deepest fear of earthly power; Jesus had to push Peter beyond his internalized trepidation, and Paul had to push the Roman Church beyond the noise of oppression. Maybe the message is about the unmistakable bond between identity and purpose. Which when discovered becomes the pearl which Jesus spoke about in parables. Paul’s understanding of church was it was a manifestation of the love of God in Christ Jesus created to transform the most oppressive of forces. Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Rev, Dr. King Jr., and many others had to be pushed beyond the limitations of their fears, weaknesses, and insecurities to become a fully activated, shameless, fierce Christian. It was a communal effort of Christian activism which mobilized people and communities.
One of the poignant fact of life is often times we as individuals, communities, churches and a nation all encounter crossroads or should I say forks in the road. Each of these bring us moments in which God calls us to go beyond our self crafted identity which leads to captivity and enslavement or we can be bold enough to be like Moses ,Peter and Paul and place all our trusts in God and walk through the fires. Many years ago, in the midst of the horrors of slavery there were two sets of people who claimed Christianity as their faith; one sang hymns of power and might from the English Hymnal; while others were singing “No grave can hold my body down”. Today Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, George Floyd, Emmitt Till and hundreds of others are still singing that song. My friends, Moses stood and gazed at the burning Bush and saw God beckoning him, he stood in awe as he heard God sending him to mobilize his people for freedom. My hope is today as we worship the same God who spoke to Moses and the same Jesus who transformed Peter and feel the same Spirit which inspired the Roman church, we will be empowered to act in our times.
I leave you with this challenge first issued by Fredrick Douglas and repeated by Dr. King by saying, “America will rise or fall based upon its willingness to live out the claim of the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Bravery today walks the streets shouting, “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” This is our identity and purpose in these times! One must be willing to suffer the consequences that result from standing for that which is right in the eyes of God. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”