Denying Ourselves When Our Culture Tells Us Otherwise

A Lenten Sermon

“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 lose their life?”

Photo Credit: neurmadic aesthetic Flickr via Compfight cc

These words from Jesus lie at the very core of the gospel, and they remain tremendously difficult both to hear and put into practice. How can we lose ourselves and, by so doing, save ourselves? You can spin that around and around all day long but it doesn’t make logical sense. If I want to get somewhere, I need to go that way.  If I want to save my life, then I must take measures to ensure my well being.  It does not flow that if I want to get something in the end that I need to do the opposite.  But that’s exactly what Jesus is after.

And it’s the heart of the gospel.

This topsy-turvy kingdom of Jesus is on full display today.  He says it in other ways too. If you want to be first you need to finish dead last.  Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear much fruit.  It is only in giving that you will receive.  Whoever wants to be greatest, must be a servant to all. Love those who hate you, praying for your enemies; treat them like a sister or brother.

A sermon based on Mark 8:31-38.

And on and on it goes.  If you want to be my disciple, you need to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me.

It doesn’t take much knowledge to figure out that this is not the way of our world.  Nothing sounds more counter to how we order our lives in this time and place, as Americans in the 21st century, than the ongoing desire of Jesus to have us pick up the means of our own demise and follow him. We live in a place that puts our needs, rights, and desires above all else.  We seek to be entertained.  We want to ensure our own safety and protection.  We long to have enough for ourselves and our families.  We believe we deserve these things—and here’s the kicker—even at the expense of those same things for others.  We are taught quite emphatically by many sources that our well being is paramount to our lives, and that we should put ourselves at the very center.

Jesus simply asks, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their souls?”

That’s the better interpretation of that word, by the way.  What we heard read this morning was “life;” “what will it profit them if they gain the world and lose their life” but the word in the Greek is psyché.  And while “soul” can also be problematic, the idea Mark is getting at is our inner core, our identity, who God created us to be.  According to the Psalmist, we have been fearfully and wondrously made.  Each of us is uniquely gifted to make this world a better place, to help plant, establish and raise up the kingdom of God.  Each of us at our very being has been given an immense responsibility to bring about change for the better, to help bring about redemption—the moving of things from darkness to light, from hatred to love, from fear to joy. To see even in the hardest of situations, the spark of new life.  An opportunity for something exquisitely glorious to appear.

If we do those things in following Jesus, we’ll find our truer selves.  And will lose the life our culture thinks we should live.

In the wake of Parkland, we can see this play out.  Our culture wants to divide us, to have us fall into name calling, to seek to blame everything and everyone else.  Far too often refuse to truly listen, and instead spout off our own thoughts more and more loudly. We’ve been told this week that access to weapons is a God-given right.   That every gun owner is evil. That there is no way to fix gun violence. And on and on and on it goes.  Proposals from both sides get floated on fixes that immediately get shot down.

And yet we must try.  We of all people, the people of Jesus who faced violence himself and then conquered death, we must stand for ending senseless brutality.  This week we saw teens stand up to interest groups who aim to only make more sales, and they said things that most of us agree with.  That life is sacred.  That fear cannot control us.  That our schools don’t need more weapons, but to be places focused on learning and building a brighter future.

We are not going to solve this in a homily on a Sunday morning.  There are no easy answers.  But I can suggest this: let’s see the face of Jesus in those who disagree with us and truly listen to them.  Let’s believe that they might have something worthwhile to say.  And then let’s all work toward the kingdom of God in which every person—every woman, man, teen and child—is believed to be precious to God.  Each one having unique gifts and callings that can make this world a better place.  A place in which it’s not about collecting the most things, but in creating a place where we might each live into our glorious callings to spread peace, joy, love and hope.  It is not about our individual rights, but in holding up the rights of the least among us.  We do this through small acts of love.  In rejecting violence and fear as motivators, and in placing ourselves at the back of the line, as the servant of all.

We do it by deny ourselves and picking up our crosses and following Jesus.

Fred Craddock, famed preacher and theologian, said back in 1984, “We think giving our all to the Lord is taking a $1000 and laying it on the table—‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’  But the reality for most of us is he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there…. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.”

Acts of love and kindness and grace will change this world. They will overcome the structures in place that seek only to promote fear and injustice.  They will mend hearts and change hardened positions.  Following Jesus will lead us to lay down our lives, our agendas, our desires, and along the way we’ll find our very souls.  It doesn’t profit us to gain the whole world and lose our lives.  Rather let us give up all that we hold dear, and follow the one who embodies the resounding grace, love and mercy of God.  We all know that our world desperately needs it—it needs him—as do we.  It’s only in following him with our whole lives that we’ll make a difference.  He came showing us the way to life.  Let’s give our all in following him.  It’ll lead to Good Friday, to be sure.  But then resurrection will be just around the corner.  Amen.