Faith Commons

by Rev. Dr. George Mason

February 14, 2024 Ash Wednesday | Woodland Church | San Antonio, TX

Scripture: 8:31-38

It would be easy to read Jesus in Mark’s Gospel as an apocalyptic figure who’s always contrasting good and evil, right and wrong, divine and human as binary choices. It’s either this or that, faithful or faithless. 

And here in chapter 8, we have plenty of reason to think this is what Jesus is doing. He scolds Peter for having his mind on human things not divine. He then tells the crowd and his disciples that if anyone would try to save their life they will lose it, but if they would lose their life for his sake and the gospel’s they will save it. He finishes with a flourish about the whole lot of the generation: if they are ashamed of him and his words before the world, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory. 

This or that. Either, or. No gray area, no nuance. You’re sold out for Christ or you’re a sell out to the world. That’ll preach, don’t you know?! Let’s go straight to the altar call. Randy and Daniel, can we get I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back?

It must have confused Peter to hear Jesus’ rebuke. After all, wasn’t he doing exactly that in following Jesus? He was willing to die for him. He was ready to call on the people to march on Jerusalem and confront the evil empire of Rome. He just knew in his bones that this was the moment. If we don’t fight, we aren’t going to have a country. We’ve got to be strong. We have to take back the country for God. Let’s go!

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s the kind of appeal that Christian nationalists are still making in our country. They have absolute moral clarity. The Right is right, and the left is wrong. Compromise is complicity with evil. We have to secure our border against immigrant invaders. We have to have dominion over the seven mountains of society for Christ: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. We have to take back control of all things in the name of Jesus. And we have to stop being afraid of using power to achieve God’s will.

Russell Moore, the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine, used to work for Southern Baptists in their Ethics and Public Policy agency. He left the SBC in disgust and has written a book about his experience titled, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. In it, he talks about how time after time multiple pastors would tell him essentially the same story about when they would quote the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching—turn the other cheek—only to have someone come up after and to say, Where did you get those liberal talking points? “And what was alarming to me,” he said, “is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ, the response would not be, I apologize. The response would be, yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.”

Doesn’t that sound just like the Peter who Jesus rebuked in this passage? Peter wanted Jesus to be strong, not weak.

But what if Jesus wasn’t weak, but meek? What if Jesus understood that meekness isn’t weakness; it’s a subversive kind of strength that alters everything by using an alternative power that is eternally renewable energy?

Alternative power. Renewable energy. That right there is controversial, especially in Texas today. Although Texas is the leader in wind and solar energy, we are so committed to the fossil fuel industry that state law prohibits investment companies from doing business with the state if it moves away from fossil fuel investments. But these polluting energy sources are overheating the planet and depleting our natural resources. Once you burn carbon-based coal or gas or oil, it’s gone forever, save for the negative effects left in the atmosphere.

The same is true of human power that makes everything a zero-sum game of winners and losers. But what if the way of Jesus is an alternative form of power that creates a healthy environment in which everyone is able to flourish?

If we look closer at what Jesus is saying here, I think we will see the power of meekness that Garrett is going to focus on in this season of Lent. Meekness is a third way that transforms us and the world. It changes our perspective by teaching us his subversive way of power. 

When Jesus contrasts divine and human things, he isn’t saying that if you serve God, you will defeat your enemies by subduing them; he is telling us that we will transform enemies into friends, seeing them first as opponents and humanizing them rather than demonizing them. And this is crucially important, because in the end, he will die for the sins of the world in order to include Every Body, not to exclude any of them in favor of us. And this is the real scandal of the gospel, isn’t it? That all means all!

When Jesus tells us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, this is the power of meekness we have to learn. It’s a meekness that works, despite what we assume.

The interfaith organization I lead in Dallas is called Faith Commons. We recently put a post on social media about the way we do our work. My partner, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, wrote this: “The animating spirit of Faith Commons is a conviction that there will always be forces, in the world and in ourselves, that will attempt to separate us from one another.” Someone who read that commented that such a claim revealed a massive lack of self-awareness on my part, given that I led a congregation in the most divisive move that split the church I pastored. He was referring to my leading the church to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons, a decision that caused hundreds of people to leave the church within months of the vote. 

But that’s just way we fall victim to the zero-sum game of the world’s power politics. It assumes that including the excluded means excluding the included. In truth, all we did was to say that we had one class of membership that applied equally to all. That all means all. That difference doesn’t have to divide. 

Every Body is dust and Every Body is divine—both at the same time. This is a third way of thinking and acting. It’s the power of meekness that suffers on behalf of our neighbor rather than making our neighbor suffer on our behalf.

When we take up our cross, that’s meek power at work. It’s giving up self for sake of selves. And when we give ourselves up for others, we find ourselves in the company of others.

My daughter, Cameron, is a public school advocate and a guardian of the right of all children to feel welcome in our schools, regardless of their religion or lack of it. She recently wrote a column for the San Antonio Express about the pending deadline issued by the Texas legislature that every school board in the state vote as to whether they would allow paid or volunteer religious chaplains to serve in our schools. She is against it if you didn’t know. She wants every school board to say no to what she rightly sees as an unconstitutional attempt to bring evangelizing foxes into the public henhouse. But as she considered this either/or decision, she realized it has the potential to play right into the hands of our polarized society. Instead, she praised a third way—what we might call meek power. 

In this approach, a school board could pass a resolution that affirmed that it would not discriminate against religious volunteers participating in our schools, without endorsing their attempts to dominate in Jesus’ name. Here’s the way she put it: “My initial beef with this option is rooted in these districts’ unwillingness to stop the intrusion of religious influence into public schools. But I’m starting to like it. Finding a workaround to the Legislature’s demands is deliciously subversive. By refusing to play their game, these school boards are protecting their districts from political polarization, which is the biggest problem facing public education today.”

When we take up our cross voluntarily, we are subverting the binary of those who would either put the cross on others against their will or accepting defeat by weakly having the cross put on us. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we will find that by the logic of the gospel, we will find our life again and again and again. 

The power of meekness is eternally renewable energy.