Take up a Cross? Part One (Mark 8:31-38)

The Rev. Shannon J. Kershner, former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, has wrestled with the words of Jesus in Mark 8:31-38 (and also in a very similar gospel passage, Matthew 16:21-28, about which she has shared courageously in a sermon). Indeed, she launches that sermon with owning up to the truth that she had been avoiding this passage for years:

"I looked and I looked and I looked this week. Surely, I thought, surely at some point in the past fifteen years of preaching I had taken on these words... about the cross and self-denial and losing one’s life to find it. In fifteen years of preaching, I must have done that, right? Wrong.

Reverend Kershner continues: But honestly, I know why I have avoided this passage.... It is because of women like Sherry. Now, Sherry is not her real name. It is important that you know that. But Sherry is someone who has had a lasting impact on my ministry, though she would never know.

I got to know Sherry early on when I served as a pastor in the Dallas area. One day, around 4:00 in the afternoon, Sherry showed up in the church office, asking to see the pastor. Sherry was not a member of my congregation. She simply lived in the town and drove by the church on her way to and from work. She decided to stop that day because she had seen my name on the church’s sign and figured I was a female pastor who might have a different perspective on her story. I showed her into my office, and we sat down. Then in a voice that was barely audible, Sherry told me her story. She told me about the abuse that occurred in her home. Her husband was the perpetrator, and up until the night before, Sherry was the one who had always been on the receiving end of the violence. But the evening prior to our meeting, their daughter became the target. That was the last straw for Sherry.

So she called the police, but no arrest was made. Texas, like Illinois, leaves it up to the officer’s discretion as to whether or not an arrest should be made after an accusation of domestic violence (National Institute of Justice: Domestic Violence Cases). And for whatever reason, the officers who responded that night determined an arrest was not necessary. Sherry had not pushed the matter with them, because frankly, Sherry was not used to her voice counting for anything. As a matter of fact, throughout this conversation, I kept having to lean in closer and closer, because Sherry spoke so softly.

Perhaps it was because she had become so used to being silenced that her entire demeanor reflected her loss of voice. But even though her voice was quiet and often shook with emotion, she still had the courage to tell me why she was there.

“I have my own church,” she said. “But my pastor does not understand. I once told him what was happening with my husband, and my pastor told me that the violence must be my cross to bear. I needed to just pick it up like Jesus did and deny myself in order to save my marriage and keep my family together. He told me it must be God’s will and to pray that I might learn to accept it.”

You see, it is because of women like Sherry and countless others that I have always avoided preaching these words from Jesus to his disciples, the words that invite “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” For generations these very words of Jesus have been taken and twisted into commands that serve only to legitimate violence in the name of faithfulness. “I was told his anger was my cross to bear,” Sherry told me that first conversation, “and that I needed to bear it like Jesus.”

Unfortunately, Sherry’s experience with this passage and others like it is not all that unusual. Delores Williams, a womanist theologian, has written about the real danger of interpreting Jesus’ words to imply that women, and particularly for Williams, black women must suffer and stay in “their place” in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Williams claims that phrases like “take up your cross” have been so destructive that, for her, the cross is not the symbol of redemption or salvation. Rather, she states Jesus’ life and ministry are what save us and show us what faithful living looks like (Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 165–167).

One of the most provocative questions Williams asks is what might have been different in the course of our history had the primary symbol for our redemption and salvation been loaves and fish rather than the cross. What if that symbol is what we wore around our neck and had displayed in the front of our churches? For indeed, from the crusades to the KKK, the symbol of the cross has been co-opted to be a symbol of God-sanctioned violence against those considered “other.” Loaves and fish might have been a much more difficult religious symbol to twist around and misuse.

That is what each cross was doing as it stood there—it was preaching a sermon of the empire. “Look and see,” the cross would proclaim. “Look and see what holds your life and your death. You can worship whom you want, but look and see and don’t forget under whose power and reign you truly live.” Frankly, that kind of sermon was what was being proclaimed to Sherry every time her preacher told her that the violence in her home was her cross to bear. Undeniably, with that interpretation of “taking up your cross,” she was also being told whose she was: her husband’s. And she was being told under whose power and reign she lived: his alone. No wonder she struggled, so much so that she was willing to tell a complete stranger her story in the hopes she might hear a word of life rather than another tired word of death."

Thank you for reading... more on Thursday.


From Rev. Kershner: I am indebted to different sources for this sermon: My own theological wrestling match with the doctrine of atonement and feminist/womanist contributions to that dialogue; Walter Wink’s theology of the principalities and powers, as well as his helpful articulation of the myth of redemptive violence; Walter Brueggemann’s language of countertestimony; Ched Myers’ excellent book on the Gospel of Mark titled Binding the Strong Man.

Rev. Kershner's sermon can be found at: www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2014/083114_8am_930am.html She is now the Pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.