St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (February 22, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Deny Yourself?

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Isn't this a terrible thing for Jesus to say to his disciples? They are going along with Jesus as he heals and preaches and teaches and feeds. And then he drops this bomb on them:

He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected...and be killed, and after three days rise again.

No wonder Peter calls Jesus aside to challenge him. This would have been shocking and mind-numbing news. The understandable response would be denial. Who wants to hear that their loved one and leader is going to die?!

We read this on the second Sunday of Lent for obvious reasons. We are in the midst of a time of preparing ourselves for the death that we already know will take place on Good Friday. It is now ingrained in our hearts and in our liturgical ritual so that the impact is softened for us. But Mark asks us to enter again into the shock and horror of this devastating news in order to feel through what the disciples experience.

Jesus returns Peter's rebuke, as we know, doubling down with words of profound displeasure. To name Peter "Satan" sounds very harsh to our ears. But how frustrating too it must have been for our Lord to get the disciples, who seem so very thick-skulled, to begin to process the full work that he was to accomplish.

That Jesus then ups the ante again is beyond mind-boggling. Not only is he going to die. Not only does he rebuke Peter. He also tells Peter and the others and us that we will share his fate:

If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

As if that's not enough, Jesus continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.

What a horror-inducing revelation! But Jesus thought it important for them to understand. Otherwise they would miss the whole point of Jesus' ministry—that he came to demonstrate with his living and his choices that giving life away for the sake of others is the path to gaining real life, true life, eternal life.

Of course, we have other plans. We want to be prosperous, strong, successful, and influential

Deny yourself. And take up your cross. Lose your life to save it.

Deny yourself! That's pretty much the standard message of Lent. Follow Jesus. Give up something. Take on something. Do something different as a way of contemplating the work of our Lord in following the way of the cross.

Many of you have been joining us in marking the stops of our Lord along "The Way of the Cross" during our mid-week services. Others have noted the text and graphics that identify the path of our Lord in the narthex. The first was the focus of Ash Wednesday, when our Lord was condemned to death by crucifixion. The second was the basis of our reflections last Wednesday, which spoke to our Lord taking up the cross.

In John, the text says that Jesus went out carrying his own cross. Today, Jesus invites us to carry ours as well.

So, what does it mean to deny oneself? What does it mean to take up one's own cross? How do we gain life by losing it?

Raise your hand if you've ever seen me wear a watch. That's right, you never have. Because I hate to have things on my wrist. Always have. I long ago learned that there are plenty of other folks who wear watches, and I can almost always find a clock or a watch to learn the time regardless of where am.

But, oops, here is a watch on my wrist. How can this be?

Well, two weeks ago, I bought this. And it isn't simply a watch; it's called a FitBit. And I bought it simply because our clergy medical insurance program provided us with a $60 credit to buy a health-related item. Of course, I spent considerably more than that once I looked over the options.

It was a classic case of materialism. First, I was impressed that a medical insurance company would provide something of a freebie. I could have purchased anything health related and stayed within the $60 credit at Amazon. But, no, I got excited about having another toy, perhaps spurred by our recent move to join the YMCA. So I spent a few hours looking at activity trackers and settled on this one.

And I was really pleased with it for a time. I enjoyed seeing how many steps I walked each day. In addition to keeping time, it tracks the number of steps, heart rate, the number of stair flights climbed, distance travelled, calories burned, and even tracks sleep patterns—that is, if you wear it while you sleep.

And I thought it was really cool. Guess for how long.

Six days. By the following Saturday, I took it off. Why? Because—duh!—I still don't like having anything on my wrists.

Yes, I put it on occasionally—and I have it on again today, since I decided to mention it in this sermon. But, really. What was I thinking?

It certainly wasn't along the lines of "Deny yourself." Such a thought never entered my mind. Nor was it "Use good sense." I apparently lost all of that when confronted with a mere $60 of credit.

David Lose offers another example for the point of the head-scratching words of our Lord today.

"I have the Academy Awards on my mind.... one [moment in the show] helped me articulate what I think is the heart of not just this week's passage but the whole of the Gospel. It was the song "Glory" from Ava DuVernay's film Selma, and what struck me was how the song writers John Legend and Common described the march to Selma in the terms of glory.

"Think about that for a moment. That march, along with the larger struggle for civil rights, was filled with confrontation and suffering and sacrifice. And yet they sing of glory. Why? Precisely because we find glory — and for that matter power and strength and security — only in those moments when we surrender our claims to power and strength and security and glory in order to serve others.

"We know this....Because each and every time we make ourselves vulnerable to the needs of those around us, each time we give ourselves in love to another, each time we get out of our own way and seek not what we want but what the world needs, we come alive, we are uplifted, we experience the glory of God made manifest. That's what Jesus means when he invites his disciples — then and now — to take up their cross and follow him, because only those who are willing to lose their life out of love will save it...

"Again, we know this is true. We do it perhaps most naturally as parents, sacrificing all kinds of things in the hope of providing for our children. But we also do it as children, friends, partners, neighbors and more. And each time we do so — each time, that is, we call into question a momentary "want" of our own in order to satisfy a genuine need of someone else, we experience a kind of glory. We know this.

"But I think it's hard to believe, or at least hard to hold onto. So much in our culture is designed to make us think that the only thing that matters — and the only thing that will bring us peace, security, and happiness — is looking out for ourselves by gratifying our immediate desires, whatever they may be This is particularly true in the world of advertising, where so much time, energy, creativity and money is poured into ads that seek to make us feel inadequate in order to induce us to buy something that promises to make us feel better about ourselves."

[Perhaps something like that weird drive of mine to get a FitBit watch.]

"But here's the thing: those commercials are a lie.

"Not that there aren't lots of great things out there to buy and enjoy. But not one of them will actually make us feel complete, or more human, or more adequate, or more accepted or loved. They just won't. The only thing that does that is connection to others and the community those connections bring.

"And connecting to others in order to fashion and nurture community requires sacrifice...

"This, I think, is the Gospel's theory of everything — that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we seek to be a friend, the more friends we discover; and the move we love, the more we are loved." (David Lose, "In the Meantime...")

It is not about blessing and power to do those things that are laid upon us, but about choosing to do what is best for the world—for community. It is not about what others need per se, but about the calling that is laid upon us to do something, give of ourselves, and offer sacrificially of our life for the sake of God's work in the world—for the sake of mission and ministry, for the sake of building God's kingdom here on Earth, for the sake of our hearts' best leanings. Taking up a cross, denying ourselves, living a Theology of the Cross, losing life for the sake of life is choosing to follow the leanings of the soul towards the pressing needs of the world.

Oft-quoted Frederick Buechner says it best: "Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need."

Jesus is telling us in rather odd and jolting ways one of the fundamental truths of the gospel. He is leading us towards the water that gives eternal life, to the seed that once sown yields a hundredfold or more, to the pearl of great price for which it is worth sacrificing all else. Life is lived not for itself, but for others and with others. Life and love and grace and forgiveness and mercy and blessings are not meant to be buried in ourselves, or foolishly placed in things, or buried at all (like those talents in the parable). They only have meaning when they move us to act for the sake of others and the world. They only give life when they move beyond themselves into community. If we follow Jesus for what we can get out of it, then we aren't following Jesus.

So, indeed, deny self—turn not inward in a way that keeps your gifts from blessing others. Take up your cross—follow your passion and gladness to enrich those around you, as well as the Earth itself (my own cross). Follow Jesus—give sacrificially of yourself for the sake of the world, not out of necessity or burden, not out of materialistic and short-term satisfaction, but out of where your heart and soul lead. And lose your life—don't "save" it by burying it away from others. Invest it in a way that honors the values and the needs that beckon to your spirit. By "losing" yourself, you will be found, you will be enriched, and you will find life satisfying beyond all reckoning. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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