Sunday, February 25, 2018

Laying Down, Letting Go: Mark 8:31-38 - Second Sunday in Lent

31[Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (NRSV)
Hill of Crosses / Collina delle Croci by * Ivan Zanotti Photo * on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, it has become taboo to say to someone, “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.

What do you mean when you say this—and what does it mean for you to hear it?

This goes right along the lines of saying, “my heart goes out to you;” or, “let me know if there’s anything you need.”  If you say that, are you ready for them to call you up and ask you for money, or help moving a sofa?  Are you ready to do or give something that comes at a cost to you?

For starters, you’re being dishonest if you’re not actually taking the time to think about and pray for that person.  Secondly, are you ready for God to answer your prayers for that person by sending you to serve that person?  Or is your care of that person limited to speaking a worn-out cliché?

I know that’s harsh, but remember—Jesus didn’t save you with thoughts and prayers. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples, for the first time, that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religions authorities, and be killed—and after three days, rise again. 

Peter, however, won’t hear of it—because Jesus had just spoken the extreme opposite of everything he hoped that Jesus would do.  He had just confessed that Jesus was the Messiah—and in Peter’s defense, the idea that a Messiah would be killed by anyone was preposterous.  Nevertheless, Jesus has just dashed Peter’s great expectations…  There would be no glorious conquest of the Romans; no overthrow of the corrupt religious leaders; no chance that he or any of his fellow disciples would ascend to positions of power

God’s Messiah will be giving his life away—and the only way for you to receive life in his name is to do the very same: to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.

This, of course, goes way beyond thoughts and prayers.  It’s beyond holding to certain beliefs and teachings or performing certain rituals or sacrifices.  You’re putting everything on the line; letting it all go; laying it all down; giving it all up.  But who wants to do that? 

At no point is the Gospel more countercultural than it is at the cross... 

We live in a world that values achieving more; to accumulating more; and controlling more.  Power, strength, and even ruthlessness get rewarded.  Individualism and self-sufficiency are virtues, and self-actualization the highest good... 

How, now, shall we live? 

Consider if you will, what impact the tragedy in Parkland, Florida has had on you.  Does it scare you?  Anger you?  Make you cry?  And what do you do with those emotions?  Do you hold your loved ones closer to you? Do you cling to a gun?  Are you suspicious of people most different from you?  Have you become a prisoner in your own home? 

Consider this time of incredible challenge and change for our church.  Are you scared about the future?  Do you believe the Lutheran witness even has a future in the Kiski Valley?  Are you willing to see this church CHANGED to be more faithful to its mission?  Or, should we stay the course, dig in our heels, and never compromise?

I ask these questions because when times are tough—or times are really good—there is always that temptation to grab onto to whatever makes you safe and comfortable; whatever gives you control; whatever you need to protect what matters most.

As soon as you set your sights on someone or something other than the cross, you’ve made your own gods.  Whenever your instincts are focused on self-aggrandizement and self-preservation, the devil is never far away.  That’s why Jesus is so harsh on Peter.  Trust in God is traded for a trust in something else.  The neighbor is of no consequence; the Gospel of no concern.  You gain the world and lose your soul. 

Trying to gain the world, you lose your mind, too.  Have you noticed that the meanest, most miserable, and dysfunctional people are those who are desperate to make a name for themselves; determined to get their own way; intoxicated by their own self-righteousness?  They are in a perpetual state of war with the world around them.  They are so set in their ways that they throw common sense out the window.  You reject truth when it’s staring you square in the face. 

The truth of the cross, on the other hand, is that God has entered into the pain and brokenness of humanity.  When life hits the dirt, Jesus is in it with you: forgiving your sins; sharing your sorrow; carrying your cares.  Jesus can take what is terrible and use it for your redemption. 

But hear also Jesus’ promise—that when you take up your cross and follow him, you gain your soul.  It’s not that you’re earning your salvation, but that when you lay everything down, you enter into the life God intends.  You exchange fear, anxiety, or ambition for right and meaningful relationships with neighbors; where security comes through the love that binds us together…  Joy comes through not what you get but what you give.  When you’re willing to enter into and embrace the pain of others, you witness firsthand the grace of God at work. 

You lay down and let go to the Savior who never lets you go.  This is what Lent is all about.  Letting go and laying down gives room for the Holy Spirit to heal, transform, and renew.  It gives room for Jesus to show you the fullness of his love and grace.  Thoughts and prayers become acts of God’s salvation.

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