Who is He to Us? Mark 8:27-38

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
February 25, 2024

Who is He to Us?
Mark 8:27-38

In Hendersonville, NC, not far from where my parents live, there is a small aquarium.  They have some 300 aquatic animals and are staffed by a team of volunteers and interns.  And it is there, in the Aquarium and Shark Lab in Buncombe County, North Carolina – that a miracle has occurred, a miracle involving a small stingray named Charlotte.  Charlotte has lived in a tank with no males of her species for the past 8 years.  Yet somehow, Charlotte is pregnant!  Her round, serving platter sized body has a large hump, and any day now she could give birth to as many as four pups.  Did she mate with a shark?  Was it immaculate conception?  Scientists say probably not – instead, a rare but not unheard-of occurrence called parthenogenesis, in which a creature impregnates itself.[1]  Hear Jeff Goldblum saying, “Life, ah, finds a way.”  Left in a shark tank by herself for longer than Gillian has been alive, Charlotte found a way.  What a strange world we live in, where people across the internet are anxiously awaiting the birth of stingray Jesus.

It makes sense, because other news the past few weeks has been bleak.

I have been particularly heartbroken by the death of a teenager in Oklahoma I read about this week.  Their name was Nex.  They were 16 years old.  They should be studying, and planning for summer, and laughing with friends, or lounging at home, but no.  Those of you who follow the news know that Nex died two weeks ago, after a fight in the girls’ bathroom at school.  See, Nex lives in Oklahoma, in a town called Owasso.  I went to college with a girl from Owasso, she grew up in the Presbyterian church there, her childhood pastor wrote one of my favorite Presbyterian primers (called Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt[2]) – all of which to say that Owasso has some strong, faithful, progressive Presbyterians but still, it is not a safe place for trans and nonbinary kids.  In Oklahoma, kids may not use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity; neither may they be called by their chosen name in school, only by the name and gender on their birth certificate.  And so Nex was bullied at school, and never talked with the school administration about it because, they said, what difference would it make?  February 7 was no different.  Three older girls made fun of what Nex and their friends were wearing, so Nex stood up for themselves, and got thrown to the floor, knocking their head on the ground, and blacking out.  Kicked out of school, and sent home.  Nex seemed to be okay, but complained of a headache.  Their grandma rushed them to the ER the next day, but it was too late.[3]

Now there isn’t an authoritative report yet about what happened.  We can’t know.  The police made a statement, saying that trauma didn’t cause that child’s death.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say that trauma didn’t immediately cause that child’s death.  Instead it was caused by having to exist in a world that insisted on a false binary, refusing to see the beautiful spectrum, the rainbow of identities that encompass all of us.  Death by a thousand cuts.

This was a preventable tragedy.  Schools should be safe, and adults – teachers, administrators, parents, community members – must do what we can to make them so.  Kids should be able to be who they are, to identify however they believe best expresses their evolving identities.  When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

In our passage this morning, Peter professes the truth about Jesus: you are the Christ, the anointed one.  It’s the first time one of Jesus’s disciples names this truth about him.  First, Jesus tells Peter not to tell anyone, and then Jesus tells Peter what it means to be God’s anointed one… what kind of Messiah he will be.  But Peter didn’t believe him.  Jesus told him who he was, but Peter didn’t understand.  Peter was stuck on an old belief; he thought a messiah would be a conquering hero, overthrowing Rome to put a king like David back on the throne.  But Jesus didn’t come seeking political power. He isn’t building military power and might.  Instead, Jesus came to show a new way, the way of peace.  He came to confront the reality of evil in the world, to vanquish the power of empire and lead us in the way to justice, healing, and peace.

Jesus knew the path ahead would be dangerous – not just for him, but for all those who walked with him.  People who challenged Rome were crucified, publicly, to dissuade others from making the same mistake.  Some scholars think “take up your cross” may have been a rallying cry for revolutionaries at that time, so certain was Rome’s response to resistance.  By telling his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, Jesus is naming the risk of discipleship: they risk their very lives.  Jesus knows that his work to uplift the poor, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to help the suffering will provoke those who benefit from the world as it is.  Jesus challenges the death-dealing powers of the world, inviting people to life and life abundant.

For we who hear Jesus when he says, pick up your cross, and follow me – for all of us who are called to be disciples, the road ahead is difficult.  We are called to work that asks us to give everything we can, all that we are, to build peace.  To cultivate compassion.  To create communities and support schools where kids like Nex are free to be themselves.  Where children can grow up, and live to old age without fear, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, Ukrainian or Russian, from Park Heights or Pimlico.

Reading this text is something we must do carefully.  Because we’ve all heard it used a different way – used to keep people stuck in impossible situations.  Stay put, don’t leave your abusive spouse or challenge your terrible boss, suffering is just your cross to bear.

But Christ came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly; he offered sight to the blind, and set captives free.  Suffering in and of itself is not holy – it’s not God’s will for us to suffer.  But, still- When someone tells you who they are, believe them – Jesus told us, and showed us, that the way of discipleship is not easy.  We who wish to follow Jesus must be brave.  We must be willing to risk speaking up and showing up for people and causes we believe in.  We must be willing to sacrifice time, invest our resources, and dedicate ourselves to the messy, beautiful, ongoing work of building and being beloved community.  Trusting the truth that somehow, life will find a way… after all, we live in a world where a stingray named Charlotte can conceive on her own!

We don’t have to be beholden to false binaries, or old beliefs.  With God, anything is possible, even going a new way, a way of peace.  May we all find the courage to speak up, to create safe and brave spaces, so that all might thrive in the days ahead.  May it be so.

[1] Watercutter, Angela, “Why TikTok is so Obsessed with a Mysteriously Pregnant Stingray” Wired, 2/23/24, https://www.wired.com/story/charlotte-pregnant-virgin-stingray-jesus/

[2] Foote, Ted and P. Alex Thornburg, Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and other Confused Presbyterians, Geneva Press:Louisville, KY, 2000.

[3] Goodman, J David, “In Video, Nonbinary Student Describes Fight in Oklahoma School Bathroom,” The New York Times, 2/24/24, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/24/us/oklahoma-bathroom-video-nex-benedict.html