“If the Disciples had Yik Yak” – Sermon for September 13, 2015

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bulletin_front_2015-09-13“If the Disciples Had Yik Yak”

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached September 13, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


I imagine that a good number of you—if you’ve taken a look at the sermon title—are wondering, “what on earth is Yik Yak?” An understandable question… I myself had not heard of it until a student-affairs-related meeting I was at here at UConn the middle of this past spring semester. The short way to explain it is that it’s basically like Twitter, except geographically tied and completely anonymous. It’s an app that someone can use on their smartphone to post up a short message, completely anonymously, that anyone within a certain geographic proximity can see and respond to. So, like this… just open it up, and I’ll type something like: “Dude, this preacher at Storrs Congregational is rockin’ it today!” And… send! Voila, now anybody nearby using the Yik Yak app right now should be able to see that, vote it up or down, or reply if they want.

As I said, part of the whole “thing” with Yik Yak is that it’s completely anonymous, both the original posts and the replies. In other words, as my partner Adam puts it, it’s sorta the 21st-century equivalent of the bathroom graffiti wall.

Reading the feed from Yik Yak around this area—here on campus—gives a fascinating window into college student’s lives. There’s random commentary on everyday life, like “Writers block is horrible” and “I would rather UConn spend our money on 2-ply toilet paper than new grass” and “103 days until Christmas, [from] your local countdown guy”. There are the catty little remarks on other people, ripping on frat boys or party girls or vegans or just any ol’ random person you saw that day, like this message: “If you like to maintain a fake British accent, please stop”. As you can imagine, there are also plenty of posts about parties—locations, activities, controlled substances, and more—especially around certain times of the evening and weekend. And what I’ve found perhaps most fascinating in the midst of all that are all of the messages revealing someone’s loneliness and sense of isolation: “Preparing myself for doing absolutely nothing again tonight” said one. “Trying so hard not to think bad thoughts or feel that everyone hates me” wrote another.

Whether it’s revealing pain or reveling in a party, I find it interesting to note the differences between what any of us will say where, and when. What do we say that we’re willing to claim, and what will we say under the cloak of anonymity? What is said in public for all to hear, and what is said when we assume no one is listening?

Even Jesus, if you will notice, seems to be distinguishing between messages, between what he and the disciples are talking about versus what he wants the crowds to hear. At least that’s something I saw in today’s scripture reading.

We’re jumping back into the gospel according to Mark today, where we’ll be journeying for most of the Sundays this fall… and one of the things people notice in Mark’s version of the story is this repeated thing Jesus does where he says not to tell anyone about him. “He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him,” we heard in today’s passage, and there are plenty of other places like it. From the blind man Jesus healed and then told to not even go into the village where people would see the miracle… to the unclean spirits who shouted out “You are the Son of God!” and were sternly ordered to not make him known… to Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop right after today’s passage who witness Jesus’ transfiguration and the vision of Moses and Elijah with him, who Jesus then orders to tell no one what they’d seen… Over and over again, there is this sense in Mark of Jesus trying to guard some sort of “secret”, if you will.

Peter gives what seems to be the correct answer to Jesus’ question, that famous question, “who do you say that I am?” Even if we were brand new to the story of Jesus, and we were reading just the gospel of Mark as our first introduction to who this Jesus guy was and what he was all about, we would have known from the very first verse of Mark that this was the story of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And so when Peter answers Jesus, saying “you are the Christ”—which is actually a more accurate translation of Peter’s words, Christ rather than Messiah—we should know this to be a “correct” answer.

But, of course, the only response we hear is that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” You are the Messiah, the Christ. Don’t say that to anyone.

Jesus does have a message to broadcast to the crowds, though. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Jesus doesn’t just show his willingness to be identified with that statement publicly. It is the statement he believes is necessary to put out there with his name. Who does Jesus want the crowds and the people of Caesarea Philippi to say he is? He’s that guy who told everyone they had to take up their cross.

It’s no accident that this “post” from Jesus, if you will, is geotagged with Caesarea Philippi; no accident that it’s the people of Caesarea Philippi he wants to overhear this message. You see, Caesarea Philippi was a locus, a focal point, of the colonial powers in the region. To name something Caesarea, after all, is to name it after Caesar, after the emperor. And so, it is here, in a power seat of the empire, that Jesus tells people to take up a cross.

Which, to be honest, is an image that has lost its power for most of us… Crucifixion was the punishment that the empire itself exacted on its most dangerous political dissidents and rabble-rousers. As Theodore Jennings, a New Testament scholar and one of my very own seminary professors, writes, “The agony and humiliation of the death [the cross] inflicted was meant to be a public example and an effective deterrent against those crimes which threatened the sway of the Empire.” And therefore, he goes on to say, “What Mark is suggesting is that there is something about the mission of Jesus and the disciple that provokes the fury of the state security apparatus. There is something about the gospel of the in-breaking of the divine rule that provokes the most extreme reaction on the part of the guardians of the status quo.”[1] Or, as well-known Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder put it, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political logically-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.”[2]

So, here, in one of the seats of imperial power, Jesus is getting loud-mouthed about he and his followers taking up the very instrument of the empire’s worst punishment. Take up your lethal injection drugs. Take up your drone strike target. Take up your solitary confinement cell in Guantanamo. Something along those lines would be the parallels we might need to hear for today. Or perhaps the most powerful and telling parallels for today would be even more subtle… how does our society take it out on those who fundamentally challenge the notion that capitalism is unquestionably good? How does our society punish those who dare to question the founding narrative of this country, the one that says it was was built on the foundations of liberty rather than on the backs of slave labor and the tracts of stolen land?

“One cannot try to be a martyr,” the theologian Karl Barth remarked. “One can only be ready to be made a martyr.”[3] Jesus doesn’t command us to go out there and crucify ourselves, but he does call and invite us to be ready, ready with the worst of what will undoubtedly be thrown at us.

This past Thursday evening, I was at a kick-off gathering for the newly forming Connecticut chapter of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice. At one point in our time together, we were addressed by John Selders, a UCC pastor and activist in Hartford. John, who grew up very near Ferguson, Missouri, has been doing a lot of travel and activism work recently as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. And in his work, he’s spent a good bit of time recently with Bree Newsome, the filmmaker and activist who climbed the flag pole at the South Carolina state capitol to take down the Confederate flag on June 27th of this year, ten days after the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.

The core thing in Bree’s preparation to take action, John says, came when she squared herself up with the realization that, in fact, she might not come back down that flagpole alive. Once she realized and claimed for herself that reality, that doing what needed to be done was bigger than herself and more important even than actually succeeding, then she was ready. And up the flagpole as she went, it was “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” And on the way back down, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” It was an act of prayer the whole time.

In such prayer and action, the word of self-denial that Jesus does invite us to say publically amidst the crowds, we come into alignment with the cross of Christ, the cross that “is good news for us—the promise that God chooses love and solidarity with us in our brokenness, good news that the cross,” in as much as it was the tool of the empire’s worst punishment, is also “the sign of God’s triumph over ‘sin [and] death…’ and the down payment of the promise to make all things new.”[4]

After all, it is through the cross that we reach resurrection. Blogger Rachel Held Evans put it this way: “Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to live, so if we want in on God’s business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in our own hearts—because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens. There’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.”[5]

Is that good news we’re willing to speak? Will we own it with our names, and more importantly, our lives? And will we let Christ own us, with all the claim on our life, and heart, and allegiance that such good news demands?



[1] Theodore W. Jennings Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2003), 128.

[2] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 129; cited in William C. Placher, Mark, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4:79; cited in Placher, ibid., 118.

[4] Erica Gibson-Even, commentary for 13 September 2015, in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching, Year B – 2015 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2014), 239-40.

[5] Rachel Held Evans, “What Now?”, 1 April 2014, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/what-now-world-vision; cited in Erica Gibson-Even, ibid., 4o.

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