A few years ago a representative from Teach America paid a visit to one of the premier university campuses—Duke. Teach America hires the brightest students and places them in some of the nation’s worst public schools. So the representative stood before the crowd of Duke students and said,
“I can tell just by looking at you that I’ve come to the wrong place. Somebody told me that this was the BMW school and I believe it. Just looking at you, I know you’ve achieved success and that you’re on a track for even more success. Yet I’m here today to convince you to throw your life away in the toughest job that you’ll ever have. I want people to go into the hollow of West Virginia and the ghettos of South Los Angeles to teach in the worst schools in America. Last year two of our teachers were killed on the job.
But just by looking at you, I can tell that you’re not interested. So go to grad school, make your millions, and live for success and comfort. But if by chance you’re interested in the toughest job in America, I have a few brochures so come over and see me. Meeting’s over.”
With that, those Duke students pushed into the aisles and mobbed that representative, signing up for more information. – Matt Woodley Bio pastor editor of Christianity Today
These students were discovering something that my wife Liza once said was true in the lives of most young people. She said, “Young people want something important to do. They know they were created to do something important.” I sense that is true for each of us as well.
We live with the sense that we were created for a great undertaking, and we sometimes ask ourselves the question of whether or not it has found us yet.
We are reaching the middle Mark’s Gospel, where the writer is offering a reprisal of the message that Jesus has been sharing throughout the disciples’ journey. It is reminiscent of the opening of Mark’s Gospel – the message of repentance – change how you are thinking about God . . . change how you are living.
Jesus is locking horns with Peter over over what this might mean.
This moment in Northern Israel at Caesarea Philipi is a nugget, a summary statement, something like the bullion of the Gospel. Some have called it a kind of gospel within The Gospel. Jesus is drawing the curtain back on the truth, and yet his lead disciple does not want to hear it; Peter offers the ministry of redirection. And it is here that Jesus corrects the misdirection, issuing a profound invitation to follow.
Moments before this reading we have today, Jesus asks the disciples – Who do people say that I am? And there follows from the disciples mouths a list of heroic titles – Elijah, John The Baptist, one of the prophetic heroes of old – the warrior, the conqueror, the vindicator. And then Peter says, “Surely, you are the Messiah.” When Peter offers this title, a title beyond all titles, that is when Jesus begins to tell them, to teach them, that they will have to discover a new meaning for that word and that expectation in their lives if they are going to know God.
Peter is having one of those moments when the voice of God enters our lives unexpectedly, but with great clarity. Peter is about to hear the impossible. Jesus tells his friends the truth of what will happen to him as the Messiah. Jesus tells the truth of who He is, and how He will be treated in the world. Rejection, suffering, death are what wait for this Messiah. And this unmakes Peter’s world.
In Peter’s mind, and the minds of the disciples, a leader who would be rejected, suffer, and be killed would be anything but a leader. In the words of NT Wright,
“Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown-up precisely as a false Messiah.”
Earlier in the Gospel of Mark there seems to be some hesitancy, some difficulty, in the disciples’ grasp of what Jesus is trying to teach them. We are told:
Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’
There is a discovery that the disciples have yet to make about Jesus, his work, his identity. And now that Peter has fired a shot near the target, Jesus will begin to illuminate and fill the gaps in their understanding; the question is – do they really want to understand? Do they really want to know what they do not yet know?
Finally Jesus is giving them the key to some of the puzzle of understanding. The key to understanding what it means to follow Jesus, especially for the disciples who are constantly misunderstanding, will turn out to be the mystery of his Cross.
Rejection. Suffering. Death.
Not only is the key to understanding what it means to follow Jesus his Cross . . . it turns out that the key to understanding Jesus is the mystery of OUR cross as well, and our decision to carry it.
These close all of the fire escapes through which the disciples might be seeking a safe passage. Borrowing the words of Biblical scholar Lamar Williamson, “the call is not to deny oneself something, but to deny self . . . premeditated deprivation and asceticism can still hand the victory of the self to the self; “for self can ride as comfortably on a bicycle as in a limousine.”
The cultivation and maintenance of self-centeredness can be accomplished with tools either simple or complex. And there is perhaps no easier place for self-centeredness to hide than behind a religious and spiritual posture of “the suffering servant and selfless one.”
Every follower of Jesus will at some point find themselves in Peter’s shoes; seeking to keep alive and hopeful the messiah of our own preciousness, the messiah we have cultivated, keeping that messiah safe from the hands of those who would destroy it. And yet the incredible paradox within our lives of faith, the incredible paradox of Peter in the midst of this moment, is that it is Jesus Himself who is dismantling the precious messiah, the imitation, that may have been fashioned in one’s imagination.
Like Peter, our preciousness will be offered in exchange for The Cross of discipleship; and that exchange is facilitated by the one we seek to follow. We must seek to deny ourselves, even to the point of denying ourselves the latitude of fashioning a Messiah who has been made simply in our own imaginations; Jesus will always be standing near us waiting to replace our messianic fabrications with a Cross that bears an actual resemblance to the path we share with him.
Rejection. Suffering. Death. It is a broadside for Peter. It is a broadside for us. It is the voice of God rearranging the human heart and mind. And the only path out of such moment is take up the very thing that Jesus is taking up and follow him into the land of new answers and a new life.
Denying one’s self, taking up our cross, is giving up being at the center of things. Denying one’s self is counter-intuitive and contrary to the spiritual and psychic atmosphere in which we spend much of our lives. It is a reliance that is prior to “self-reliance.” It is an identity that is not affirmed simply as the project of our own intimations. It is an identity that comes once Jesus helps us to die to one way of being in the world so that we might “awaken” to a new Way.
I believe that finding and taking up our individual cross is perhaps the greatest and the last adventure of being human; finally discovering our identity that was formed by God. An identity toward which we are moving in the midst of this life, and that will find us once we take our place in heaven.
This counter-intuitive movement toward God will be different for each of us. For some it will be so large as to move a mountain in our lives. In the place where the largest aspiration or avoidance of our souls might happen to be living, Jesus wants to be in that very place. What is the all consuming passion, or the all-consuming distraction, that is truly living on the center-stage of our lives; that is the place where our cross is waiting to be raised. Jesus wants that very space in our hearts. For some of us discovering the Cross of Christ will be as significant as the moment Peter is having with Jesus.
For others, exchanging of a false messiah for the true one will be found in those many, small, repetitive moments of life where we have to put the concern and good of others before our own – if we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus. The small places, the inconveniences, the irritations, the grudges, those feelings and perceptions of others that our so easy to maintain, when we are at the center of all things; when are very sure that our “self” is intact and operating. Finding the Cross of Christ in those places might change thing. “Losing our life, our self” in those places might mean that things have to change. It might mean that our “self” finds a new place and way to be beneath the presence of the Cross.
Who and what is living with us at the center of our hopes and aspirations?
Be careful. In the presence of the Jesus that we meet this morning with Peter, the Carpenter, the Son of Man as He calls himself, is coming and waiting to take that very spot. He wants, and expects, the best seat in the house of our souls.
Jesus wants to have this conversation with each person who follows him.
Some of us know that conversation when Jesus says,
“Will you stand with me when the hard decisions arrive? Will stand with me when you have to choose between the reflection you find in the professional or social mirrors, and the revelation you find in scripture? Will you stand with me? Will you stand with me when you have to choose between the reflection you find in the good opinion of others, and the revelation that the world may think you a fool for carrying a cross and following me?”
“Will stand with me when I ask you to put down the fabrications of your spiritual preciousness, and lift upon your shoulders the hard reality of a Roman cross?” Will you deny yourself gazing at the reflections of a “self” you have worked hard to create, and accept the cross containing the image of your true self that God has created? Will you accept the revelation of the “self” that you find when you discover the power of my Cross?
I was told in seminary never to end a sermon with a question. However, having lived through the broadside of God’s voice more than once in my own life, and knowing that I will face it again, the questions I leave with you are questions that I sometimes carry in my own life of following Jesus. Questions for which I too seek direction during Lent.
“What did you want? What did you really expect as you follow Jesus?
Some version of a glorious life, or a glorious death?”
Not even the Son of Man was granted things as these.
In the end, at the end, what is important?
Our version of life and death, or the certainty of where real life begins, and never-ends?
Sermon March 7th. Preaching Texts: Exodus 20: 1-7, 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25, John 2: 13-22, Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent (B). Rev. Andrew Christiansen. St. Mark’s Cathedral
“You give us long enough to argue over something and we will bring you in proofs to show that the Ten Commandments should never be ratified.” –Will Rogers
Will Rogers was obviously satirizing the dysfunction one may find from time to time in government or in humanity in general, but he was may making a point:
Even the most irreligious person today who never steps foot in a church would not deny that these commandments clearly guide us in the right ways and describe some basic fundamentals on how to live. Who could deny that even after thousands of years since they were carved into stone, that they still speak to what is universally recognized as basic right versus wrong in our world.
You shall no other gods before me.
You shall not make any graven images
You shall not take the name of the Lord you God in vain
Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy
Honor your father and your mother
You shall not murder
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal
You shall not bear false witness
You shall not covet what is not rightfully yours.
When I read or hear the Ten Commandments, I often am reminded of which ones that I have broken! Maybe you think of that too or feel that way when you read or hear the Ten Commandments. Maybe you can think of the times where you were affected by someone else in your life breaking one of these commandments (after all, God’s rules are more than a checklist for an individual but involves his vision for us in how we are to live our lives together). I have found that these rules often convict me showing where I have fallen short, and to what areas in my life, both currently and in my past, that I have not lived up to. I think of the moments in my life where I relied too much my own self to know what was best for my self, as if I knew it all, as if I had all the answers and nothing else to learn. This ignores that life constantly presents each of us with situations and dilemmas where our choices and how we order our lives matter not just for our own selves and healthy living (which is important) but also in regard to relationship to our neighbor, to God, and the people we share our lives and this world with. Even kingdoms and governments have fallen when things like what we see proscribed in these commandments have not been followed, where people disregarded a higher wisdom or wisdom of the ages that offers to save us from our own self-interests. The commandments speak to us both at the most individual, micro level and to a much larger picture.
And indeed if we focus too much on the Decalogue as a list of isolated commandments, we fail to miss how interrelated they are and how they can be beautifully summed up to into two, as Jesus put it “Love God and love neighbor” of which he taught us the entire law hangs on. When we see it as merely a list, even if it is a good list, we may try to shrug off that one or two we have severely fallen short of upholding… because after all nobody is perfect, but we keep the rest of them without a problem, so no big deal right? But this way of looking at the Ten Commandments only leads us to a type of self-righteousness that looks to find what is to see how are others are more wrong than we are (or how we are more right than they are) or what is wrong with other people and other things outside of our own selves rather than taking a true and honest look at our own selves. As the minister Nicky Gumbel says, “We are very good judges for the mistakes of others, but very good defense lawyers for our own mistakes.” Obviously, we must start first with an honest look at our interior.
When we do this. We realize something that is upsetting, at least initially, but ultimately prepares our hearts for a powerful change and redirection of our interior. We realize the words that we prayed together only moments ago, the words of our collect that say “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”. Maybe this hits home. Maybe for some of us here in this third week of Lent disciplines have realized we have already overestimated ourselves a bit. Maybe we fudged a bit on what we originally were determined to do or refrain from doing this Lent. But you know, if we could help ourselves, even just a little bit, then Christ died for nothing. This is what so much of this world cannot understand, because it flies in the face of everything we are so often taught and even tell ourselves. The message of our culture so often says you have it within youto prosper, to find fulfillment. I remember walking into a major chain bookstore a few months ago and seeing the entry way lined with books on self-improvement and self-help. I see so many similar things of a similar nature that I could just stream off Prime or Netflix at any given minute that claims to offer secret, the “wisdom” to true self-fulfillment and to evade all of life’s tough struggles and baggage. But the message of the Cross, as Paul reminds us today, is counterintuitive to this. The message of the Cross is a foolishness, the “foolishness of our proclamation” as Paul says is only foolishness to the eyes of a world that cannot understand it. It is the proclamation that the cross, which is a symbol of death and destruction is the very means by which life has broken into the world”. The world that the crucifixion happened in could not in all their wisdom fathom that something so immutably perfect and powerful could present itself form of crucified person emptied of self. The wise look for the solutions to the toughest struggles and toughest questions in their lives only to scramble and grasp at anything, as meager or shallow of a philosophy it is.
But if we think we can help ourselves even in a little then Christ died for nothing. The toughest struggles and questions of our lives are there to remind us that we need a power outside of our own selves to save us, to guide us, and to heal us. Wee need a power outside of our own selves to “Keep us outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body, and from all the evil thoughts which may assault and hurt our soul.” Theologian the Rev. Dr. Peter Toon says of this collect, “The usual tendency in our prayers is to ask God to help us, to aid us, to assist us and to strengthen us. All well and good, but sometimes hidden in such verbal requests is the general idea that we can do so much for ourselves and we only need God to come along and give us the extra push, to top up our strength. But in this prayer we begin by recognizing as we meditate before almighty God our Father, that in fact we need more than a push and a topping up: we need his help, power, grace and strength completely and wholly. For we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves in the real battles of life against adversaries much stronger than we are.”
The Commandments are God’s desire for our bodies and our souls, and by having these laws, this Decalogue, written on our hearts, is not merely to have been given a list of rules form a magistrate. This is not an executive order signed off by a detached earthly official who we will never personally encounter. These are laws written for us to be on our hearts, by a God who desires to dwell in our hearts and be with us. A God who says “I am here for you to lean on in your time of life’s toughest and most difficult struggles. Put your trust in me. Surrender yourself to me. For your ways are not my ways”
And in this truth, we see a wisdom that our world declares foolishness, but is the only wisdom that can face ‘the real battles of life against adversaries much strong than we are’ and we can begin to take hold of the mystery in which God works and is for us. God sees things through in each of our lives, in a wisdom that this world cannot always understand, in a way that is counterintuitive to the way we so often see, in a divine wisdom, indeed that the world sees as mere foolishness. It is in the Cross and in the constant example that Jesus sets for us where the wisdom-as-foolishness is made known. In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ wisdom is seen as foolishness after he cleanses the temple, a temple that had been there for generations- when he claims that if torn down it will be rebuilt in three days. Jesus is seen as a fool because they do not realize when he says Temple, that he is not talking about a building, but he referring to himself. He is the paradox of Almighty God revealed in flesh and blood. And in this flesh and blood, time and time again, Jesus models for us what it is to surrender one’s self and put one’s trust in someone higher. Though he was equal with God and was God, he emptied himself as the Scripture says. He submits to the will of our Heavenly Father even in times of life’s deepest struggles- even in the darkest time of his own life when he is in the garden on the night before his crucifixion, where after praying to be spared if possible, he says “Amen.” “Not my will, but your will, O Father, be done.” By his holy submission, we will find that our own life in God’s sight may indeed involve inconvenience and maybe even suffering, but we will also find an answer of wisdom that the world deems foolish: to that know that even when we find ourselves facing adversity, we have inwardly in our souls a God who is for us. This is the great paradox to which Paul speaks about, when he preaches to his fellow Christians about the “foolishness of the Cross.” “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The other great paradox is that Law that tell us God’s expectation for people that would make this world a better place if we could follow these rules all on our own, is a law that is fulfilled and completed perfectly in Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. This is Jesus’ word of ‘It is finished’. It is finished for us. The temple of his body has been broken and raised. We have a God who is not detached but comes to us in person, who desires our hearts, who comes to show us power through weakness and self-surrender. In the times of despair and futility, may we look upon his foolishness as wisdom and not stumble. For the key and answer to our lives’ toughest questions, for our hearts’ longings and desires, and what our souls ache for is found in a perfect submission to the One whom we are always walking in the sight of. And that is something none of us can do on our own. For it is in our times of struggle, anxiety, estrangement, and sadness, where God is closest to us. It is in those moments, where our comfort is found in the one who is revealed in Christ, God-made-flesh, who not only stands with but carries the brokenhearted, who renews the humble in spirit and revives who have faced the utter realization that they are powerless to help themselves. This season of Lent is a reminder of an invitation that is present for us now and in any season of our life, the invitation for those who have come face to face with our own mortality, and the invitation for all us who have thrown our hands up in the air trying to navigate the problems of our lives all on our own, to say to the Lord “Take this burden from me”, and to be renewed and walk in new life.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
 From the book: Will Rogers’ World: America’s Foremost Political Humorist Comments on the 20’s and 30’s and 80’s and 90’s
 Isaiah 55: 8-9
 Philippians 2:7
 Luke 22:44, Mark 14:36
We are beginning Lent this year amidst the ice and snow of North Louisiana – however our hearts and souls are not empty. Last night my daughter hastily put together a king cake, and we “shrove” the ice storm larders for the makings of Fat Tuesday feast in the midst of this generation’s greatest Winter Storm.
One of our parishoners, Laura McLemore, has done the good deed of putting together this year’s Lenten meditations collected from the members of St Marks. I am very grateful for her efforts and truly appreciate her willingness to do so in the midst of the quarantine. I always enjoy peering through the window at our Lord through the eyes of friends and fellow Christians; I hope that you will share these far and wide in the midst of our your own circles of faith. Simply visit the web address for the booklet:
Needless to say that we are missing you this Ash Wednesday – we are all sharing the unmistakable hand of God upon this first day of Lent.
Blesing and Godspeed,