This “Following Jesus” Thing Isn’t Easy

~ Genesis 17:1-7; 15-17/Mark 8:27-38 ~

I have to say up front that I am very wary of talking about devotion. I have issues with trying to assess how devoted I am, how devoted you are. In my growing-up experience, for which being truly devoted was a must, I’ve seen too many “truly devoted” Christians get really messed up, get entangled in extremist theologies and heresies, and do harmful things. The appeal to be more devoted to Jesus, again which I heard incessantly growing up, often results in spiritual anxiousness and fear, not peace and fulfillment. You can never do enough, you are always lacking, read the bible more, be at church for every meeting, pray unceasingly. It can wear one out. I know it did me. Devotion is not a simple thing. It is fraught with many pitfalls.

And, yet here we are dealing with Jesus’ seeming call to greater devotion. Here Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Here is talk of losing your life because of your devotion to Jesus. That sounds really hard. Indeed, this ‘following Jesus’ thing isn’t easy. And in regard to both of our scripture texts today, it appears it might have something to do with our individual identities or, more precisely, our names.

What’s in a name? Names are featured in both our scripture readings today. In the Genesis story we have God changing the names of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. Both of the name changes seem to have something to do with God’s covenant with them and being blessed by God.

And then in Mark we have Jesus and the disciples walking down the road when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” They toss out a couple of names: John the Baptist, Elijah, the Messiah. To which Jesus says we’re not gonna talk about it and don’t tell anybody else that we’ve talked about it. OK? And then he proceeds to go by the name, “The Son of Man” whatever that means. And then there’s Peter trying to get Jesus to stop talking about scary things, like getting arrested and executed. As a result, Jesus calls him Satan. Dramatic stuff.

What’s in a name? Using these stories as a springboard, it would appear that one’s name is pretty important.

When Linda and I were doing church work in the inner city of Denver back in the early 70’s I got very intrigued with graffiti. In the inner-city neighborhoods where we lived, graffiti was everywhere. I was curious about those who dared draw on the walls and fences of Denver. Some of the graffiti was gang oriented. Local police would study messages scrawled on buildings to see if they could decipher gang activity. But most of the graffiti was merely personal expressions, the psychology of which I came to understand as an attempt to “write my name on the universe.” I saw it as an attempt of people in the hood to cry out, “I am here; I matter.”

Coincidently, one of my favorite music artists at the time, Jim Croce, came out with one of his signature hits. Remember this song?

Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I’ve got a name
I’ve got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I’ve got a name
I’ve got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by

Having a name is important. Maybe you believe that your name is important. Or maybe you don’t. The question “Who am I?” usually starts with your name. “I am David.” But often lurking just below the surface of such an assertion are doubts. Maybe I am not significant. Maybe I don’t amount to anything more than just my name. And so we doubt ourselves. Second-guess ourselves. Indeed, Jim Croce’s song has echoes of an attempt to squelch those doubts.

Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by

Despite how we each might wrestle with the issue of personal meaning and significance when it comes to our names, I would suspect that not too many of us look to God to validate our names. You know, “God knows my name and so I know who I am.” “My name is important because I’ve been baptized.” We don’t usually consider what our name happens to be in our relationship with God.

How do we determine our identity? What is in a name, your name, my name? I would guess that assessment is filled with assumptions. We all carry with us our daddy’s name, to play off Croce’s lyrics, and the unnamed history that represents. And it isn’t just about our particular family’s history but the whole culture out of which it emerges. Indeed, it comes out of our white culture, our white supremacist culture, hundreds of years in the making. A culture that is assumed and probably hardly ever questioned. But it is who we are, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Much of the angst we witness in the culture wars in today’s America is about identity. Or, more precisely, the loss of the assumed identity of being in charge, of being on the top of the heap, of presuming to be society’s moral leaders, calling the shots. Much of the anger we witness from the far right, from Christian nationalists, yes, from those who stormed the capitol and those who still champion that cause, even from elected politicians, is the fear of losing their place at the top of the societal hierarchy in America. That identity is rapidly crumbling, bringing with it the awful dread of being overtaken by, yes, people of color. In short, an identity steeped in a racist America.

One of the reasons Black Lives Matter is such a controversial phenomenon in America today is not because, as some assert, “all lives matter” but because our racialized society doesn’t really consider black lives to matter all that much. Too many people of color experience, daily, the existential experience of not mattering. Being set aside. Not having a voice. Not being seen. Not having a name. Hence, they cry out as best they can by whatever means available to them, such as graffiti, “I am here; I matter.”

What does all this have to do with following Jesus? What does “taking up our cross to follow Jesus” have to do with where we find our identity. Well, let me try this out on you. In this time of Lent, instead of giving up stuff as is the tradition, maybe we should lean into, dive deeper, into how we think of ourselves especially in light of our fellow humans who live under the cloud of racism on a daily basis. Maybe we are called, as a form of carrying our crosses, to be self-reflective. I suggest we adopt the Lenten discipline of questioning some of the assumptions by which we’ve lived our whole lives especially in regard to the assumption of white supremacy. I know that for myself  in many ways I’ve just taken my whiteness for granted. Indeed, I don’t even think about, because it is the norm. I assume privilege. For people of color that is just not the case. People of color are always aware that they are not the norm. Cookie artist, Jasmine Cho (check her out), in a Ted Talk put it this way: “Privilege is when your culture is taught as core curriculum, and mine is taught as an elective.”

This is not easy. We do not like to examine ourselves, ask hard questions about our past, pull up the floorboards, if you will, to see what’s underneath. But I fully believe that these times have brought us to a place where we are presented with that hard task. This past year has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe it has also presented us the opportunity to be self-reflective. So, to bring it back around to Jesus’ words, “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.” This Lenten season may we lose our life by intentionally engaging in the hard work of self-examination. May that be the cross we carry. May that be the commitment we make. May that be how we live out our devotion to Christ.


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