• Dr. Bruce A. Havens

Cross Words


A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL, U.C.C.

August 30, 2020


Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

I became a crossword puzzle fan back when I first moved to Jacksonville, in May of 1999, I lived here for 6 weeks or so before my family moved down. Living alone, with no television or furniture, other than a mattress to sleep on, I would do the Times-Union daily crossword puzzle in the evenings before bed. I haven’t kept that habit up in recent years.


Crossword puzzles can be entertaining. Cross words – angry words, to be more accurate - between friends, or family, or even strangers – are not entertaining. Rather they can be painful, embarrassing, or destructive to a relationship. And this morning we hear cross words between Jesus and Peter, and we hear “cross words” from Jesus – words about taking up our cross - those words we so rarely want to think about: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Such “cross words” are no easier to hear or “swallow” than the angry words we might sometimes hear between friends, family, or strangers. I would like to think mostly about the latter two types of “cross words” this morning: the ones between Jesus and Peter, and the ones from Jesus about anyone wanting to follow him. But I believe our response to those cross words may also have an impact on how we respond to so many of the “cross” or angry words we hear or maybe say ourselves in our current cultural crises.


Jesus rather bluntly and suddenly tells his friends that some of the powerful religious and community leaders – elders, chief priests, and scribes – are going to have him arrested, beaten, and killed. These words evidently shocked and maybe even angered Peter, one of his closest friends. He cannot imagine such a thing, although it was not uncommon for those in power to execute anyone for the least thing. The Roman version of peace was a “law and order” kind that put down any protesting, rioting or threat to the status quo they maintained with the largest army in the world spread out over Caesar’s far flung empire. The Jewish religion had inspired many revolts against Caesar who often violated their sacred beliefs. Jesus was ultimately seen as nothing more than one more easily disposed of potential agitator against Roman power and rule.


We may wish that politics and religion don’t mix. We may wish all we had to think about was “spiritual” things like love and peace and being nice. But the reality is that the vision that Jesus Christ preached was a vision of a different way of running the world, and that ultimately involves politics. Many writers have pointed out that the religious leaders of Jesus’ faith and in his time enjoyed their positions because the Roman governor and Emperor allowed them to as long as they “kept the peace” at all costs. While many claim Jesus’ did not talk about politics or social issues, the fact is that any mention of a “Kingdom of God” was a threat to the “kingdom of Caesar,” and was treated as such. And most of Jesus’ parables had to do with the unequal and unjust working conditions in his time.


One writer, [Mitzi J. Smith, workingpreacher.org, 9/3/17], points out that “Jesus as the king of the Jews or God’s Christ/Messiah (“anointed one”) is obviously a threat to the status quo. His mere existence as an infant constituted such a threat to King Herod,” who served only as long as he pleased Caesar, “that Herod was willing to murder all children under two years old in and around Bethlehem to assure” that Jesus would not someday take Herod’s crown. Herod knew he could rely on the chief priest and scribes to cooperate with his murderous agenda because they too only served as long as they kept Pilate as Governor and thus Caesar as Emperor happy. Just like then, in every age there are those who use religion to manipulate politics and politics to manipulate religion.


This may be a concept we would rather not consider but here’s the reality. What Jesus really was doing was asking us to consider, are things the way they really should be? Can you and I not imagine a better alternative to what is? I have suggested that faith is an act of imagination – a visioning of God’s purpose for the creation, for humanity, and for the future. When Peter demands Jesus not die he is in a sense saying that is something he can’t imagine happening or being God’s will.


Another writer, theologian, and preacher [ David Lose, davidlose.net, ] says, “And perhaps that’s the difficulty. Peter couldn’t imagine. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus had come not just to comfort people but to free them. Comforting isn’t that hard – just give them a little more of what they already had and tell them it will be alright. But freedom is different. Freedom requires that they see that what they have isn’t life-giving in the first place.


He goes on to say, the evidence is all around us – we know people are dying, that the world is scary and disappointing as it is and that we have “settled for less than God hopes. Disappointing relationships, the illness that returned, the career that ended, the untimely death mourned, the disappointment looming.” Even worse we see the chaos, the violence, the unwarranted shootings on an almost daily basis and we think our task is to either take the side of “law and order” and the police because we believe our very way of life is threatened. Aren’t we “ready for something different, for something more? Jesus promises more. It is a different “more” than the more we have been led to believe will satisfy us.


Our Scripture echoes the temptations Jesus himself faced and overcame. Someone once wrote: [ Mitzi J. Smith, workingpreacher.org, 9/3/17 ], Think back to “Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: The devil dared Jesus to save his life by turning stones into bread so that he could eat, to lose his life by casting himself down off the highest point of the Temple mount so God’s angels would save him, and to gain the world while forfeiting his life because Satan promised him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping Satan. … Jesus settled the question of his priorities; he sided with the poor who do not have the power to turn stones into bread; he refused to trivialize life and sided with those who are defenseless from the daily onslaught of violence; and he turned down ill-gotten material prosperity and power predicated on [participating] with evil and oppressive forces.


To me this is the difference between the way God thinks and we humans often think. Perhaps we can best take up our cross by stopping the crucifixion of others. To me following Jesus means I cannot be satisfied with the way things are. I have to imagine something different, something better.


So let me try a metaphor, maybe a parable. For those of us who are at least curious about the start of football in the fall, let alone those of us anxious for it, maybe this will work. There was once a cornerback, had been through years of coaching and training to cover receivers, to make split second decisions about which direction to go, whether to “bump-and-run” or lay back and cover loose. He was lined up to cover a receiver and every indication from all his training was to play him close because he might run for a touchdown. But the receiver made a move the corner back didn’t expect, he grabbed the receiver to keep him from getting away and was called for pass interference and a fifteen yard penalty. The next play the same receiver scored a touchdown because the cornerback was still upset about how the receiver had deceived him the last play. Some in the crowd booed the cornerback. Some yelled that the receiver had committed offensive pass interference. Those who thought about it realized, maybe the coach had not given the cornerback all the training and preparation he needed to be successful.


We are having a sometimes violent debate about policing in our nation. Some think anyone who complains hate the police. Some think it is all the fault of those who got shot in the back for not obeying the police. Maybe the answer is better training - “coaching?” So rather than just ignore the problems in our world, or just blame who I think is at fault, I want to suggest there are solutions that are better than either of those routes.


Can you imagine if we gave better training to police to help them respond - even in split second decision making moments a better way to respond - than killing someone who actually is not guilty of a death sentence crime, or in a way that gets the officer killed? The call for a solution to problems is why I am deeply invested in our justice ministry as a pastor and why I push for our church to be invested in it. Our justice ministry has researched an effective and better training alternative for our police force to use to reduce the violence in encounters particularly when there is a mental health crisis involved. This training has worked in many other large cities. In Miami, for instance, a city that was ripped by violence and police shootings in the 80’s, many of which were considered a sign of racial bias and prejudice, they implemented this training. The statistics over a six year period showed that because of this training over 70,000 people who were dealing with mental health issues were not arrested, nor did the encounter end in a shooting or a death. Those are God’s children whose lives were saved. Less than 2/10ths of those who were identified as potential mental health crises were arrested. The others either received appropriate treatment, the situation was deescalated to the point the officers did not need to take action, or similar nonviolent alternatives resulted. Is that not a “God thing?” Is that not an alternative to – as Jesus rebuked Peter - “the way humans think?” Is that not a way to carry not just our cross, but someone else’s by supporting this kind of change? Why would we not support better training for our police?


So here is a crossword puzzle for you this morning: What is a seven letter word for faith? “Imagine.” What is a phrase for the opposite of “a worse?” Right, “a better.” What is three letter word for what the early followers of Jesus called their religion? You got it! “Way.” Put that together and you have: “Imagine a better way.” Imagine a better world. Imagine working together for it. Imagine. AMEN.


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