Mark 8:27-38, The Inclusive Bible
Then he and the disciples set out for the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way, Jesus asked the disciples this question: “Who do you say that I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptizer; others, Elijah; still others, one of the prophets.” “And you,” he went on to ask, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah!” But Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him. Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by their elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly. Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s!” Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process? What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”
“Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s!”
This was Jesus’ way of saying to Peter, “you do not know what you are talking about.”
I say this because on September 12, 2000, I delivered my stillborn daughter, Anna Michelle, who died at 22 weeks gestation, and this is exactly how I feel in response to the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, which would ban women from making decisions about their own bodies, lives and medical care. Allow me to explain.
Yes, I delivered my stillborn daughter. It was the only choice available to me, in “liberal” New York State at the time. I had gone to see a perinatologist the day before to discuss whether I wanted an amniocentesis. The ultrasound technician was behaving strangely and then she abruptly left to get the doctor. My husband looked quite worried. I hadn’t caught on yet. The doctor came in, did the ultrasound all over again, then told us to meet her in her office. By that point, I knew something was wrong. When we sat down in her office, she explained that “fetal demise” had taken place and she was making arrangements for me to go to the hospital to have labor induced that day. I was dumbfounded. I had recently completed a yearlong residency at Westchester Medical Center as a chaplain, where I had been assigned to the Labor and Delivery, NICU and pediatric units. I could not comprehend, in that moment, that I was the patient hearing this news, not the chaplain helping someone else process it.
I could not comprehend, in that moment, that I was the patient hearing this news, not the chaplain helping someone else process it.
When the news finally sank in, I was horrified to realize that I had to go through labor. I asked why I couldn’t have some kind of surgery. I could not, I was told, because technically speaking, at 22 weeks, the procedure was considered a “late-term abortion” by medical professionals and New York State, and no local hospital had a doctor authorized for such a procedure. Had I insisted on it, I would have had to travel several hours to a specialist out of state and pay thousands of dollars completely out of pocket, as insurance would not cover it. This was not feasible for us.
I could not, I was told, because technically speaking, at 22 weeks, the procedure was considered a “late-term abortion” by medical professionals and New York State, and no local hospital had a doctor authorized for such a procedure.
And so, when I arrived at the hospital that evening, I demanded another ultrasound, to be 100% sure there was no heartbeat before I would consent to labor being induced. I spent the night in a Pitocin and Demerol induced fog as I labored, alternating between crying and vomiting as my body contracted, and my heart broke. Anna was stillborn at 7:25 AM on September 12, 2000. She was 6” long, 2.6 ounces. The nurses were models of compassion and kindness. They cleaned her up, put a tiny hat on her head, wrapped her in a blanket, and handed her to me to hold. Her left arm was deformed and withered; all of her limbs were frail. Her skin was so translucent and thin I was afraid to touch it. Her eyes were closed, and I wonder to this day what color they were. We were never able to get a definitive diagnosis to explain her death, but it was entirely clear that she had catastrophic genetic defects. Had she survived pregnancy, I cannot imagine what suffering she would have endured.
I spent the night in a Pitocin and Demerol induced fog as I labored, alternating between crying and vomiting as my body contracted, and my heart broke.
Six years later, after bringing my two sons into the world, I discovered that once again, I was pregnant. I went to see my OB, who had cared for me through all this. I told her that I did not have a good feeling about this pregnancy; something did not feel right. She scheduled an ultrasound, and then reassured me that all looked fine and she’d keep a close watch. I went in for another routine check-up at 14 weeks, where, once again, they could detect no heartbeat. The doctor remembered my earlier comments and confirmed that my intuition had been correct. She sent me home to tell my husband the news and said she’d schedule an outpatient procedure if I did not spontaneously miscarry in the next day or two. I did not miscarry, so the procedure was scheduled. And then it was canceled and rescheduled a few days later. And then again. And then again. And then again. Pregnancy, at that point, was literally a risk to my life, but I was not “sick enough” to end it.
I walked around for 3 full weeks, terrified and praying that I would not hemorrhage and bleed out while caring for my 2 and 4 year old children; or go septic and risk death, leaving them without a mother. The procedure was repeatedly postponed because it was considered an “elective abortion” and not a high priority for operating room space. It was not until I tearfully begged the scheduling nurse to leave me on the schedule, so I did not get sepsis and die, that she finally decided that I was a high enough priority to get the medical care required under the circumstances.
The day that I did get that procedure, when I woke in the recovery room, the same nurse who had cared for me during labor with Anna, sat by my side. She was just as kind, compassionate and competent as I remembered her; she was like an angel sent from above to care for me again in my hour of need.
The day that I did get that procedure, when I woke in the recovery room, the same nurse who had cared for me during labor with Anna, sat by my side.
We were able to get a diagnosis, a few weeks later, to explain the cause of this death. It was another genetic abnormality. We also found out it was a girl, whom we named Celeste. Had she been one of the very few with her condition that survived pregnancy, the odds were that she would have lasted weeks or months in a Neonatal ICU. Having spent some time as a chaplain in a NICU with terminally ill babies and their parents, I was grateful that we were spared that grueling experience.
As a result of these personal experiences, as well as my professional experience in ministry, I can safely say that over the last 22 years, I have encountered hundreds of women who have endured pregnancy loss. Some, like me, never had a choice about what to do; others had to make an impossible choice after receiving a diagnosis that no one ever wants to hear. Still others suffered physical and emotional crises when something went horribly wrong and some women recognized that even if they were physically able to carry a pregnancy to term, they were unable to do so for other catastrophic or life-altering reasons.
So when I hear the kind of propaganda used to pass laws that make it impossible for pregnant people to receive medical care in a time of crisis, Jesus’ sharp rebuke of Peter comes to mind: they don’t know what they are talking about. In my own case, no law would have changed the outcome for either Anna or Celeste. The only outcome of restrictive laws for me was to make appropriate medical care unavailable when I needed it. Had that nurse not put me on the operating room schedule when she did, I could have died, for no valid medical reason.
So when I hear the kind of propaganda used to pass laws that make it impossible for pregnant people to receive medical care in a time of crisis, Jesus’ sharp rebuke of Peter comes to mind: they don’t know what they are talking about.
If the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade, the lives of all pregnant people in our country will be put at even higher risk, as doctors and medical providers become less and less able to deliver appropriate care when needed. People will die, for no valid medical reason.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus rebuked Peter about his understanding of what it meant to be “the Messiah” because Peter’s understanding was that the Messiah would come as a conquering hero to overthrow Rome and make Israel great again. Peter was wrong.
Jesus made clear, with his description of what the Messiah must endure, that the kingdom he preached and envisioned was not about empires, domination, or inflicting suffering on the vulnerable. Instead, it was about joining the vulnerable; experiencing the suffering of the afflicted with compassion, and working together with love toward justice and mercy for all people, including women and children.
A note about what Jesus meant by “take up your cross and follow me:” people often use this phrase to reference some kind of suffering or circumstance that they are forced to bear, like a medical diagnosis. Other times, people use it to reference a situation that they think someone else should bear with grace, such as an alcoholic spouse or domestic violence. Neither is what Jesus meant.
Jesus meant that we must willingly, voluntarily choose to engage with suffering, to try to bring compassion, love, mercy and justice to situations that require it. So in the examples I’ve used, the loss of my daughters was not my cross to bear; I did not choose that suffering, nor did God choose that I should suffer in that way.
So in the examples I’ve used, the loss of my daughters was not my cross to bear; I did not choose that suffering, nor did God choose that I should suffer in that way.
But the nurses, doctors, family members, friends and others who took care of me when I needed it; the people who helped me become able to accompany others through grief over their losses – that is taking up the cross. It means that every single time I accompany someone through their grief, I must set aside my own grief – or to use Jesus’ words, I must deny myself – so that I am able to bear the discomfort that is inherent in accompanying another, and offer compassion and grace to someone else who is in pain. It is not easy work, but Jesus never promised that it would be easy. He promised it would bring about resurrection, and that is a very different thing, a thing that I can attest to, because 22 years ago, my world fell apart. It was hard to even draw breath, my grief was so crushingly hard to bear. But I never once bore that grief alone. The prayers, love and support I received helped me carry on until I had enough strength to help others carry theirs, and that is resurrection.
And so, I pray that we, who claim to be followers of Jesus the Messiah, find the courage and compassion to bear another’s griefs and burdens in their hour of need, and set aside the judgments and obstacles that hinder us from experiencing life in the kin-dom of God, the life that the Messiah has led us to. This is what he was talking about. Come, follow him. May it be so. Amen.
This post was adapted from a sermon delivered on September 21, 2021 based on Mark 8:27-38 by the Reverend Margery Rossi to the First Presbyterian Church of Wappingers Falls, NY.
As of April 2022, Reverend Rossi serves as minister to South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY.
Thank you to the Reverend Angela Tyler-Williams, Lead Organizer of SACReD for her invaluable editing and insight.
To connect with other people of faith doing reproductive justice work, please visit sacreddignity.org.