February 25, 2018 – Lent 2 B

Mark 8:31-38

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.”

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You know, I’ve always struggled with writing sermon introductions. Part of it could be the terror of the blank page, endless possibilities and nothing to get the wheels turning. Part of it could be that sometimes they feel forced – I had a pastor once who always started his sermon with a joke. It never had anything to do with sermon, it was just a little dose of laughter, which was usually just there to cover up the groans because they were always really bad jokes. But I also believe part of this trouble writing an introduction to a sermon is that I feel a pressure to be engaging right away, to present a story or illustration eloquently enough to engage you all and get you interested in the rest of it. And then sometimes, I sit, read how Jesus was speaking, and I realized that he doesn’t really do introductions a whole lot. In fact, he seems to almost never have one. When he has something to say, he says it, without sugarcoating it. But doesn’t mean he’s always easy to understand.

Parables, for instance, are stories which continue to challenge and confuse us. He speaks in parables a lot and, when he isn’t, he’s often speaking in metaphors and language which we don’t often use anymore. In our gospel today, he is relying on a single metaphor to give him entrance into a very hard topic. That metaphor is the cross. So, instead of coming up with an eloquent introduction, I will take a cue from Jesus and just get into it.

This is one of the more common ideas about scripture. How often have we heard a phrase like, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” I’ve heard it used to describe physical things (like a bad knee or sore back), personality quirks (like always having to be right), and even other people (which, I think we’ll agree, is not very kind at all). But Jesus here isn’t talking about a watered-down sense of the cross or an audience of 21st century Americans. He’s talking to people who must have had a visceral, physical response to this phrase. These people he’s talking to do not know of the cross as a religious symbol or an icon of new life and hope. Instead, he’s speaking to a group of people who see it for its original purpose, a symbol of torture and death. It was an instrument of military empires, who would kill and display any and all who stood in their way, in order to send a clear message – we have the power and we will keep it at all costs.

So, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me” and “those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel”, he’s not talking about putting up with that annoying relative who never stops talking. This is not a march of worldly glory and triumph. He never tells potential followers to pick up their swords to follow him. No. What he’s actually talking about is something that, honestly, terrifies us.

Because in a world in which we’re almost constantly trying to advance ourselves, extend our lives, and expand our influence, Jesus is saying that, to follow him, we are going to suffer. That our lives are saved, not through gaining, but losing. And, paradoxically, following Jesus, the Son of God, leads down, rather than up. Here, Jesus puts aside all notions that following him will solve all your problems or will be the key to an easy life. In fact, the opposite may be true.

So why, then, do we bother at all? Why pick up the cross? Why walk the path of suffering and self-sacrifice? These are real questions and Jesus does not give us straight answers. And while I can’t give you all the answers, I can tell you this: That Jesus is not asking you to do something which he has not already done for you. That this kind of self-giving life is the only ways I’ve seen that can satisfy our souls. That if we want the clearest picture of God’s love, we don’t look to thrones or castles, but crosses and tombs. Jesus went to the cross, unable to leave you unaware of how deeply God loves you. Jesus chose death, even death on a cross, over a system of politics or religion which tells you that you must be more, achieve more, have more, or do more in order to be valued, loved, or worthwhile. Instead, Christ’s death tells us that you are exactly enough right now. You have already been claimed and called as daughters and sons of God. You have already been given the Holy Spirit and called beloved.

And so, instead of advancing, always forward, we have the courage to suffer; to suffer with Christ for the sake of others. Because there are people in this world, perhaps much closer than you even know, who do not know that anyone, anywhere, would dare to suffer for them. Even people who know about Jesus, even people who have been to church their whole lives, sometimes do not understand this. And when you take up your cross, when we dare to live for others instead of ourselves, you are showing them the love that has suffered for you.

But there’s something I have found, when I’m meeting and working with people who are suffering. It’s easy to think that we are bringing Christ to them when, in fact, they are doing the same for us. In acknowledging and addressing suffering, both in abstract and real, concrete ways, we find that Christ is already there, waiting for us, waiting with us. It’s only when we step into the tomb that we begin to see that Jesus, that hope, that love is not dead, but alive.

In Christ, we meet a servant who is willing to suffer for you. And in Christ, we find the courage to follow. The grace of Christ has been given to you, it is yours, and it is not dependent on your ability to understand it, earn it, or justify it. Paul reminds the Romans, and I’m reminding you, that like Abraham, you are justified, you are made righteous, pronounced holy, through the love of God. And the way we see the love of God is not in mansions, bank accounts, or in the respect we’ve earned. Rather, the love of God is seen in Jesus, the suffering servant, the man who was willing, and still is willing, to suffer with and for all creation. We show God’s love, the love you have already received, by doing the same.

You are God’s child. You are beloved. You are enough. Amen.

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