Sunday, March 25, 2018 – A Preacher Thinks about the Donkey, a sermon on Mark 11:1-11

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

I would like to begin this morning with a prayer that comes to us from the Iona Community. Please pray with me

Liberator Christ,
you came into a holy place
and read the sacred word
about sight for blind folk and freedom for prisoners.
Come to this place now.
Read these words to us
till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked,
and we can see the world as it is,
and as it could be;
till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously,
and the visions of the young are valued,
and the potential of the old is released;
till your kingdom is celebrated everywhere,
and your church is good news to the poor.
Amen.

Well. Welcome to Holy Week.

A couple of weeks ago, I said that we put a lot of pressure on the Bible.

I think we do the same with Holy Week.

Or at least I do. This expectation creeps up in me that I am supposed to feel something extraordinary and transformative this week. And then as one of your worship leaders I have this overzealous expectation that the same needs to happen for you. That we need to help make sense of this most sacred of weeks so that you will know all of the details of Jesus’ last week, you’ll understand theologically what each part means and why, and in the midst of all that heady stuff, you’ll feel something extraordinary and transformational at each service of this week too.

That your life will find purpose again on Maundy Thursday as Jesus commands us to love one another we have been loved. That your heart will shatter on Friday when God’s beloved is taken out, silenced, assassinated, pierced by the Empire’s bullets of power, control, and fear. And that your soul will burst back to life on Easter Vigil and Easter morning with resurrected trust in a God whose love for you and this world cannot be destroyed.

And then come Monday morning, you’ll think to yourself, “Wow. Holy Week at my church is awesome!” And then you’ll tell your co-workers about it and they’ll be so moved by it, that they’ll just have to join you at St. John’s Lutheran on April 8th, when worship times at 8:30am and 10:45am.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on one week.

But I have a different approach for myself this year. And maybe it can be for you too.

Perhaps we live out this week together not to make sense of and explain it all. But rather just simply to remember. To remember this central story of ours. To hear it again. And in remembering, begin to trust in the slow work of God that over time meaning for our daily lives out there will be found.

You see the act of remembering was so important in Jesus’ day. Not simply because they were an oral culture, receiving their stories and their news by word of mouth, but also because remembering their story and the people who have gone before plugged them back into the long-arched story of who they were as a people. And to what kind of God they belonged.

In fact, the day Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey was all about remembering. It is the beginning of Passover, the Jewish festival which remembers the time when the Jewish people were freed from their slavery in Egypt. Do you remember the story of when Moses says to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”? They would remember that story – their freedom from slavery – in Jerusalem that week. It is one of the ways they kept the third commandment – to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In Deuteronomy 5, part of keeping the Sabbath it says is to remember that you once were a slave in Egypt, and remember that God set you free from that empire. Which is to say, do not forget who you are and to whom you belong. You are a freed people who know the struggles of this world and you belong to God. Remember that.

That act of remembering matters. It re-members us. It draws us back to each other.

Families whose loved one has died know this well.  When I meet with families that are grieving and, in the midst of that grief, are planning a funeral, we always take time to just start telling stories.

Tell me about your dad, I’ll say. Or What adjectives would you use to talk about your mom? Or what drove your crazy about your husband?

And what amazes me is that everyone in the room doesn’t have to remember everything. Every story. But rather each person offers up their own little contribution to the quilt that was this person’s life. And it is in the midst of remembering that meaning starts to take shape. When the detail or the story happened years ago, they couldn’t tell you what it meant. But now in remembering it, suddenly a deep cavern of meaning starts to open up from the tiny details of a human life.

Like the fact that Myron Solid would write upside down for the sake the student seated across from him. Or that Wes Pearson would walk home for lunch every day. Or that Thelma Nitz Lee saw just about everything as “perfectly good” and worth keeping.

And so during this Holy Week, I want to invite you into the spiritual practice of remembering. Find one thing during each of the services to remember from this sacred story of ours. Not to make perfect sense of it, but to carry with you. And trust that in time, meaning will arrive.

This morning, I am remembering that young donkey that has never been ridden. Did you catch that little detail? Jesus sends two of his disciples to be donkey-fetchers – not a highly sought after job, I suspect, for these hand-picked disciples. But Jesus says to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.”

Now this act of Jesus riding on a donkey – that would have triggered a memory for everyone there. They would immediately remember what the story – their story – from long ago when the prophet Zechariah said, Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.

And in remembering that story, the meaning of this moment for them would become clear.

This moment, during this time of Passover, when on the opposite side of the city, the Roman brigade is entering the city on war horses, with shields and spears, you know to keep control of this little freedom party these Jewish people are having…it is in the midst of that that Jesus arrives into Jerusalem as a king long awaited. Your king. And he comes to you. But he is a different kind of king than the world has ever known. He comes triumphantly and victoriously without a chariot or war horse. Without a battle bow, without a weapon. Without a military parade to show off our killing power. No, he comes triumphantly on a donkey in peace.

And the painful truth of this scene that we already know is that this prophetic, protesting march, is a really funeral procession. A funeral procession for the King willing to die for this peace and for the people he loves.

And all I can think about, all I can remember is that young donkey, that has never been ridden, whom Jesus chooses as his vehicle of choice.

Maybe I cannot stop thinking about that donkey because I am having a hard time avoiding the connection between what is happening in our churches today and what happened in our country yesterday.  Today we gather in our churches for a march lead by Jesus, during Passover, which reminded the people of their pain and suffering and slavery in the past. And the people shouted, and we shouted, “Hosanna!”, meaning Lord, save us.

And then yesterday, the young ones among us gathered people all over the country. They gathered in the streets and at our capitals (our Jerusalems) and they marched against the pain and suffering that is in our all-too recent past. That of gun violence in our country and in our schools.

And the shouts and chants at this parade sounded a lot like Hosannas….Lord, save us. And do you know what people were carrying on big signs? Pictures and names of those who have died by gun violence.

So that we will remember.

So that we do forget who they are. So that we do not forget who we are and what has been done to us. And, truthfully, what we have done to ourselves.

The timing couldn’t be more profound for those of us who remember and begin Holy Week.

And so maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about the donkey that has never been ridden. Because sometimes Jesus calls on the young, and the vulnerable one. Sometimes Jesus calls on the one who has never been called on. Sometimes Jesus calls on the inexperienced ones who were never trained for this work and asks them to carry him into the center of our lives.

I heard a poem by Mary Oliver this week.

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Today, I’ll be remembering that donkey. And all the young and untrained ones through whom God is at work in our world. For yesterday, Jesus entered our national story carried on the backs of our students. It’s a burden they do not deserve to share alone.

May we all have the ears to hear Jesus call out our names. And may we have the sturdy legs and the strong back to carry Christ to the center of the city and all the places we go.

May God bless you and encourage you in our re-membering this week.

Amen.

 

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Sunday, March 11th, 2018 – A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9


John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. 


Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This might be strange for me to say, but I get a little nervous when people actually start reading their Bible. I have been reminded over and over again in the past few weeks how dangerous the Bible can be to how people see the world but also for how people see God.

We put a lot of pressure on the Bible – we seem to think that ever verse needs to have some message or morality tale for my life. Or that we need to understand what every verse means in order to be faithful believers. Or that we need to be able to explain and make sense of everything in the Bible in order for the Bible to still be the true Word of God.

It is like we have been taught to think of the Bible as linked chain that connects us with God. And every single verse in the Bible is a link in this chain – and if any verse is not factually true or if we disagree with a certain passage that link in the chain breaks and the entirety of Scripture collapses and we lose our connection with faith and with God.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on the Bible.

You’ve seen those black and read warning labels that say, “DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care”? I think we should put one of those labels on every single Bible we give out. DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care.

 This is my fear when a story like the one we heard from the book of Numbers is read in church. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness complaining about the length of this road trip and the quality and quantity of the food and in response, it says that God sends them poisonous snakes to nip at their heels and kill them until they say they are sorry, in which God gives the magic antidote of staring at a bronze serpent to heal the people of their poison.

A story like this…either it convinces you that God is a god who rewards the obedient and who sends poisonous snakes to the disobedient. Then we start thinking that everything happens for a reason (like cancer, or snow storms, or open parking spots close to the doors of Target) and from there your life of faith is founded on fear and superstition.

Or a story like this…convinces you that God is cruel, this whole thing is a sham, and you abandon the church all together.

That’s a lot of pressure resting on one text in this linked-chain of scripture. That is a lot of damage one text can do.

But Preacher and Professor David Lose suggests a different way of looking at the Bible. Rather than a linked-chain, where each passage, each verse, holds an equal amount of weight, he suggests that we see scripture as a series of concentric circles. At the center are the foundational texts of our faith. The ones we are clear and confident about what they say about God. For me, at the very center would be Romans 8 – nothing can separate you from the love of God. But then in the middle and outer circles, are the texts that are less clear. We aren’t sure what they mean. They are still important but they’ve had less influence on our faith.

This morning, we’ve heard three  of what I think are our central texts.

  • From the Psalm: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever
  • From Ephesians: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved useven when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved
  • From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Those are the big and steady rocks of our faith. We can carry those central beliefs about God – that God is good, full of great love for us, non-condemning – into the outer rings of Scripture like Numbers 21. We got out trusting that our firm foundation of faith is not reliant upon understanding this one confusing text.

But now that we have grounded ourselves in our central beliefs about God, I want to venture a bit into the story about the poisonous snakes because there is wisdom about God and about us that we can find there.

Now, let me just say this first, and I’ve said this before when preaching, and I know some of you are a bit uncomfortable with it, but I feel like I have pastoral responsibility to say it, so here goes: I do not know for sure what this text means. But there are parts that speak truth into my life and perhaps they will for you.

Briefly, a little context. The Israelites have been set free from slavery in Egypt and they’ve been wandering in the desert looking for the promised land for many years. And they have a tendency to complain.

They complain against Moses – their leader – that they don’t like the bitter water, so God shows Moses how to sweeten it. They complain against Moses about the lack of food, so God gave them manna – the bread from heaven. They complained against Moses that they were thirsty, so God commands Moses to strike a rock, and out comes gushing water. They complained against Moses that there was no meat – no protein. So the Lord sends quails their way.

And then today we hear again about their complaining. But this time – it is different. This time they don’t just complain against Moses. They complain against God.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 

Now that is pretty whiney. And did you notice that there complaints don’t even make sense? We have no food! And we detest this miserable food! Clearly something is going on here.

But I think there is more going on here than just Israelites who are hangry – to use Bruce Benson’s word from last week.

It isn’t just their stomachs growling and their throats parched – their hearts are turning to stone.

We detest this miserable food. You see they’ve begun to resent the manna – the food – that God gave them when they were hungry. It had been for them a physical sign of the grace and love of God that they once were thankful for, but now they have grown bored with it. They became ungrateful and started to resent the gifts of God that once sustained them. They have started to distrust that it was enough to get them through. They thought they would die in the wilderness, which is to say that they no longer trusted in the grace of God to get them through the wilderness.

In short, they find the grace of God boring and untrustworthy.

Years ago, I had the joy of getting to meet and hear Jay Bakker speak. Some of you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Well Jay is their son. With his whole life in the public eye as Jim and Tammy’s boy, much like his parents, his life went into a tailspin.  At 13 years old, he started drinking and doing drugs just to get away from the chaos that was his life. But now he has been sober for 18 years and is a pastor in the Cities and a well-known speaker and author.

But this is what Jay told us. He said that he was in church his entire life, but never discovered grace until he was 20 years old. Sure, he heard people talk and sing about grace, but it always sounded empty and meaningless. Instead, the message he was really taught was that God hated him and that he was bound for hell unless he could be a good enough person. Which is not grace, right?

But Jay said that grace, real grace, amazing grace, saved his life.[2] Because finally someone came along and told him – Jay, God loves you unconditionally exactly as you are. Whether you are drunk or sober. Whether you’ve got it together or whether you don’t. God loves you all the same.

 And then Jay told our group that when he was invited to speak to us, he was told not to spend too much time on grace, because we’ve all heard that before and the organizers didn’t want u getting bored and to start playing on our smart phones. And so Jay said, “Well, I know you guys know grace. But I’m afraid you’ve become bored with it. What you need to know is that there are thousands of people out there who have never heard about grace.”

The Israelites got bored with God’s grace, with God’s gracious manna from heaven, meant to sustain them. And here’s the truth: so do we.

Israelites stop trusting God will see them through the wilderness. And so do we.

Sometimes we stop trusting in that grace to actually have an impact on our lives and the lives around us.

And notice that in the story, it is then, in the very next sentence, that poisonous snakes show up.

I do not believe that God sends poisonous snakes to kill people but the Israelites thought there was a link. We complained against God, and now there are snakes. This must be God punishing us.

But could it be that the moment we stop trusting in a loving God, when we stop being grateful for the grace of God, when we stop trusting that God is here to save us and not condemn, when we stop believing that God sees us and all people as precious and beloved, when stop trusting that God will see us through the wilderness times of our life, that the moment we get bored with God’s grace, we get bitten by a snake. And then infected with a kind of venom of fear and resentment and ingratitude that hardens our hearts, and we die.

Now we need to be careful with death in the Bible because in the Bible you can be dead and still have a pulse. Did you hear the first line of Ephesians? You were dead in sin, but God who is rich in mercy has made you alive in Christ.

You can be dead and still have a pulse. Last Wednesday evening, during David Kelvie’s powerful message, he was telling us about his struggles in life, and his self-destructive decisions. And then he said these words (and David, I don’t know if you even remember this), he said, “Toward the end of my life…” and then he stop quickly and corrected himself, “Toward the end of my walk without God…” And I thought that moment was profound. I don’t think he misspoke. Because to some extent that was the end of his life – that life. He was dead back then. But then God made him alive again.

So, these Israelites have been infected with a poison and they are dying and they confess to Moses because they knew something was wrong and they pray for the snakes to go away. But notice that the snakes do not in fact go away. God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put on a pole so the people can look at it and be healed. We learn that God does not take poisonous things out of our life, but rather God gives us the courage to look them straight in the eye. And in fact, we will be healed when we can look at them and face the poisonous parts of our life.

This season of Lent seems to be designed to get us to face the poisonous snakes in our lives. And so I want to close with two questions.

One: how’s the sense of gratitude in your life?

Brain science research tells us that if we can find one thing to be grateful for everyday, our life will be more joyful. Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of you are living through your own wildernesses right now and it can be overly simple to say, “Just be thankful for what you have.” That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that there is manna in the wilderness and when we stop looking for it or we resent it, our hearts grow hard and we die.

My second question: where have the snakes snuck into to your life? What’s poisoning you right now? And how are you avoiding that truth? I promise you, if you act like it is not there, they will just continue to bite you. But if you can lift that snake up into the light and look at it – you just might be healed of its poisonous power.

So, in the remaining weeks of this season, I invite you into the spiritual practice of gratitude – finding one thing each day to be thankful for – and the spiritual practice of staring snakes in the face – being honest about your life.

And now receive a blessing – may the grace and love of God never lose it’s flavor in your life. May you never grow bored of it. May it never leave you empty and hungry. But may it fill you up and sustain you and may it guard your hearts and your minds through the wilderness now and always.

Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018 – Jesus Will Ruin Your Life, a Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 8:31-38
31 Then he 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.” 34 He 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. 35 For 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.36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those 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.”

Sermon

Jesus 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. 35 For 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.

Years ago, pastor and preacher, Sam Wells, was the head of Duke University Chapel. One year, he was asked to speak with the entering class of students. He was asked to talk about the work of the chapel and the campus ministers, from all their different denominations. When the students arrived and when it was his turn to finally address them, he said this: “(All the denominations represented here in the chapel and the campus ministry) are different but we’ve got one thing in common. We’re here to ruin your life.”

All the other pep talks given that day told the students how to follow their dreams and how many facilities and support services there were to help them construct a successful, comfortable, well-regarded existence. But Sam thought he should be honest and acknowledge that if that’s what these students were looking for, faith would ruin their life. He wasn’t invited back.[1]

If you think Sam is joking about the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider the story of Shane Claiborne. In 2012, Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist spoke at the ELCA youth gathering and in his talk he shared a story about the ugly laws passed in Philadelphia against the homeless. Laws that made it illegal to sleep in public parks, illegal to lie down on the sidewalk. Illegal to ask for money, and eventually the mayor outlawed all public feeding of the homeless. Shane said that eventually there came a moment where he asked, “What’s a Christ follower to do? Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves.” One of the pastors said that if Jesus had tried to do the feeding of the 5000 in Philly, Jesus would’ve been arrested.” And so Shane and his friends started to think about and pray about what they should do. And in the end, they decided to throw a party that looks like the kingdom of God. They invited a bunch of their homeless friends and they gathered in the park. They brought their guitars and their drums and they sang worship songs. And then they did something sort of sneaky in one of those zones where it was illegal to give out food – they served communion.

All the police officers were like, “I’m not going to arrest anyone taking communion. I’m gonna have communion.” They continued the breaking of the bread by ordering in some pizzas. Which pushed it a bit. And then they slept in the park with their homeless friends even though it was illegal. And eventually, they were arrested.

In the end the charges were dropped because the judge realized the ridiculousness of charging these folks with a crime for feeding the homeless and sleeping in the park. But then Shane made his point very clear: before he became a Christian, his life was pretty well put together, but then he met Jesus and Jesus messed his life up. “I was never arrested until I became a Christian,” he said.

If that just sounds like a new age, hippie-liberal view of the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider this.

Recently, I learned about a letter that was found written by a person in public office to his brother. In the letter, he talks about his son who is doing well in his studies. He is set for a military career that could be followed by a career in politics and a settled family life that would make his father proud. But this letter goes on to talk about how this boy has gone astray. He seems to have joined some kind of a sect and he’s refusing to join the army because he says he won’t fight. And he says he won’t marry because there are things more important than having a family. And all his values have been turned upside down, the letter says.

The letter is an archeological find from the 3rd century. It is written by a Roman Senator. He’s talking about his son’s conversion to Christianity.[2]

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For 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.”

I wonder if you are getting the point yet.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life. It’s not a great sales pitch, I know. And it is not a highly sought after church mission statement. But it’s true.

Sometimes, I wish I could watch someone read Scripture for the first time. From a blank slate – just to see what their reaction to the story is. There are certain stories where the first reaction might be informative to those of us who take these stories for granted.

As Pastor Pam pointed out last week, the story of Noah and the flood isn’t exactly the children’s story we’ve made it to be. Years ago, my sister-in-law was reading the Spark story bible with her daughter. It was one of their first times diving into the stories of Scripture. It was this beautiful, faithful, moment. A mother and daughter, reading the bible together. And then they read the story of Noah. And in the end, my 5-year-old niece looked up and said, “You mean they all die!??!”.

If we could watch someone read the gospel of Mark for the first time, chapter 8 would be the moment when everything turns. We’ve had 7 chapters of Jesus’ ministry – of healings and casting out of demons, caring for the outcast and the suffering, and Jesus being identified as God’s son. In fact, just before this passage, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter gets the answer right.  You are the Messiah, he says. The anointed one of God come to make the world right again. The One who defeats the Roman empire once and for all.

So far, so good.

But then Jesus begins to teach them. That the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and killed, and after three days rise again. 

“You mean he dies?!?” both Peter and the first-time reader ask.

Peter couldn’t believe it.

And Peter’s life and hope are ruined.

Like anyone hearing something they don’t want to hear, Peter rebukes Jesus. He takes Jesus off to the side, privately and scolds him. Trying to contain this, in any way he can. But Jesus will have none of it.

And Jesus, looking around at the other disciples, says “Peter, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Get behind me, Satan!”

And then almost to heighten the tension and up the ante, Jesus gathers everyone around and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For 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.”

 Jesus has just revealed that his way of life leads to suffering, rejection, and even death. And now he has just asked for followers. In other words, “Come. Follow me. I’m here to ruin your life.”

Because, you see, that phrase – take up your cross – every one of Mark’s original hearers would have known what that meant.  It’s the first time the cross is mentioned in the entire gospel but for the 1st century readers, it would mean one thing – Roman political and military punishment. It was a humiliating and disgraceful death for those who resisted and did not follow in the ways of the empire.

The Roman Empire says, “Follow me, or you get the cross.”

Jesus says, “Go get your cross and follow me.”

It can be easy to underestimate what that word means for us today.

We’ve used those words, “Take up your cross” and trivialized them into crosses of annoyance – like that co-worker you just can’t stand but have to work with. Or into a cross of unnecessary suffering – like a cancer diagnoses. Again. Or into a cross of self-defeat – like staying with an abusive spouse.

This is just my cross to bear, we say.

But is that really what Jesus is saying? He’s just spent the past 7 chapters ending useless suffering and oppression. Why would he endorse it now?[3]

This isn’t divine permission to be a doormat to the world – letting whoever stumbles your way walk all over you.

But it is a call to action. A risky call to action. “To face the evil, sin and death of the world with goodness, courage, and love.” [4] And when one follows Jesus like that – the cross is the inevitable result. When you stand up to evil in your life and in the world, there will be suffering and rejection. And even death.

It’s like Jesus saying to the transgender kid, “Take up your parent’s rejection of you and follow me…into belonging and wholeness for the beautiful person you are.”

It is like Jesus saying to the politician, “Take up losing your campaign finances and re-election bid and follow me…into truth and integrity and justice and love of neighbor.”

It’s like Jesus saying to the high school students in Florida and across the country, “Take up the Facebook comments that diminish you as an entitled and lazy generation, and following me all the way to Washington.”

To take up the cross means to give up your life in order to stand against the powers of evil in this world the prevent the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.[5]

As Bonhoeffer said, there is a cost to discipleship. It will ruin your life. It will ask you to stand up for those in need. It will ask you to stand up for yourself. It will ask you to listen when one stands up to you. It will ask you to set your mind on divine things over human things. It will ask you to offer forgiveness over retribution, and grace over judgment, and justice over your own personal comforts.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life.

I wonder how that sits with you.

Are you rethinking your membership here at St. John’s?

Are you affirmed, knowing the cost this life of faith has had on you and your life, and knowing that it is true: by letting go of life and following Jesus through the streets of suffering, pain, hardship, and death…you actually can find your life once again.

Are you inspired to follow Jesus in a new way – not just with your Sunday mornings and your Wednesday evenings, but with your whole life?

If our faith costs us nothing, then we have wonder if we are really following Jesus.

I don’t know exactly what this means for all of us – to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Or what it looks like in your life. Only you can figure that out. But I do know that on this road of faith, we are not alone. There is One walking ahead of us. One who knows the way. Whose been down this road before. It will lead us someone where. We won’t know today. We maybe won’t know next week. That’s why we call it a life of faith, not a moment of faith. We will lose our lives. But we also just might find them.

May it be so.

[1] Sam Wells, http://s56.podbean.com/pb/2db7c8263afa728e1bf45f2ecd15359c/5a9222a4/data2/fs32/601733/uploads/13-12-22_Sunday_SW.mp3

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383

[4] Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, pg. 35.

[5] Matthew Skinner, http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?article_id=1142