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Lent 2 February 25, 2018 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Sermon for Lent II February 25, 2018
Mark 8:31-38
 
From time to time, a student will ask me to write a letter of recommendation on his or her behalf, a letter that will be read by an admissions officer in a graduate school, law school, seminary, or a potential employer. Most of the time, I am happy to write such letters. But let me say: I would not want to write a recommendation for the disciples in Mark’s gospel. If ever there were a group of dunderheads, of dim-witted students, it would be this crowd. They ask Jesus for the best seats; they openly compete with each other for social status; they announce their clear desire to rule over other people. And, then, when he announces that, in all likelihood, he will be arrested for his words and his actions in service to the Kingdom of God, he is misunderstood again, pulled aside, and rebuked by Peter – the student who didn’t pay attention when Jesus told him and the rest of the gang, and told them repeatedly, that he was among them as one who labors with and for the people; not the one expecting others to wait on him hand and foot.
 
So you can imagine that their ambitious little hearts dropped into greater dismay with all that talk of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross. My bright and empowered women students, upon hearing such an exhortation, would snort and say: Deny ourselves? You’ve got to be kidding. We have been forced by the Man to deny ourselves for thousands of years. We have been used and, yes, abused. No: no more denying ourselves. My bright and empowered students of African and Hispanic descent, upon hearing such an exhortation, would burst into bitter laughter and ask in bewilderment: Deny ourselves? Do you not recognize that the social system created by church-going people of European origin has been nothing but one denial after another of who we are and what we dream of? And then there is the pervasive American dream of fulfilling oneself, of living up to one’s fullest potential, of becoming the very best “you” – and in that dream there’s little room for denying oneself, is there?
 
And so I wonder: is that what Jesus actually meant? Was he counseling people to belittle themselves, to become subservient to others because, you know, some Christians believe that a certain kind of humility is something that actually pleases God? I think Jesus knew that the way in which he lived his life in public would arouse suspicion if not hostility, a suspicion and a hostility that could lead to unwarranted arrest, interrogation, and even death. Yet, Mark is writing his gospel, with this story included, some thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And by that time, Mark may well know that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is no walk in the park, no easy thing. Mark may well know that to live into the Kingdom of God, into a way of life marked not by violence but peace-making, marked not by disregard for the poor but by God’s equitable justice, marked not by the urge to take revenge but by forgiveness, marked not by racial or gender discrimination but by heaven’s equality and compassion practiced here on earth – that all this could mean that the outsized ego and the tendency to see oneself as the center of the universe has little place in this kingdom. To deny oneself may well mean to ask that most important of Lenten questions: Who or what holds sway in your life, in my life?
 
If you and I were to travel to the city of Rome and enter the 12th century basilica that rests atop a fourth century church that rests atop a 1st century Christian house, we would find in the apse of the church a stunning mosaic that encompasses the entire wall. There we see a cross with the figure of Christ crucified on it. On one side, there is Mary and, on the other, the Beloved Disciple. But this is no ordinary crucifixion set in a deserted plain, for we see spiraling out from the cross a mass of green, living branches, curling outward as if the walls cannot contain their growth. And among those many vibrant branches, we see chubby angels seated on leaping dolphins, a farmer planting seed, a herder tending his sheep, a woman feeding her chickens, two friends in conversation, a priest reading the scriptures, a deacon counting the Sunday collection, an astonishing array of floral arrangements, a group of deer drinking from a stream flowing from the foot of the cross and from its top, the hand of God descending. Amid this extravagant abundant life there is death – yet a death, a giving away of life for the sake of others, an act of emptying the ego so that others might find room to live and breathe and flourish. What did Paul say of this life that has become our life? “You know,” do you not, “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Yes, I say, let us lose our lives in this Lord Christ: let us become poor with him so that others might become rich in God and in life.
 
Mark 8:31-38
Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”
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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.”