Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Second Sunday of Lent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – February 25, 2018
Oh, boy. This is just such an awkward situation. Peter is naturally upset hearing Jesus describe the horrible things that lay ahead and objects, but Jesus will have none of it. Why? Because he knows he cannot allow himself to be pulled aside – to be tempted to abandon the road to the cross. Not even one of his closest friends can convince him and so he responds with this passionate cry of “get behind me, Satan!” Satan. The name that means “accuser.” It’s the name of the one that steals the Gospel from people in the parable of the different types of soil. It is an absolutely cringe-worthy moment. And yet, it is essential. Not just for Peter and the disciples in their faith formation, but for Jesus, too. Once again, he must wrestle with his mission and embrace the journey to the cross.
We, too, are always called to embrace the journey to the cross. It doesn’t just happen in baptism, confirmation, or in moments where we affirm our baptismal commitments like the new members will today. It happens every single day in the choices we make.
Peter’s outburst is born of love and concern for his friend. But it’s also born of illusion. Peter doesn’t want things to change. He also thinks he has some control over the situation – that he has the power to rebuke Jesus or to stop the incomprehensible and painful things Jesus is saying. But Jesus is speaking openly and truthfully. They are words difficult to hear, but need to be said. He cannot be silenced, nor will he cease to preach the Gospel and fulfill his mission.
Just as we too, are always called to embrace the journey to the cross, we live in worlds all too often shimmering with illusion. We try to stave of aging by make-up, plastic surgery, injections, or medicines. We refuse to talk of death, thinking it horribly morose even though it is part of life. We paste smiles on our faces and tell people we’re fine when we are aching, refusing to be vulnerable with others or to admit that we, too, are sometimes beautifully weak and in need of a helping hand. We live in the illusion of success, working 60 hour weeks to make more money, drive better cars, or buy bigger houses, only to find we’re exhausted, our health is taxed, and our relationships with those we love are strained.
Smoke and mirrors. Yet, how often, do we cry out and fight tooth and nail when, God forbid, anyone try to speak a hard word to us – to try to help us shatter those illusions? Yes, we’re not huge fans of change. But it is essential that we hear Jesus’ hard word this morning. That we wrestle and struggle with it, because in it, there is life.
Lent begins with the sobering reminder of our own mortality: “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a time when we traditionally adopt practices of giving something up, letting something go, or taking on something new in order to deepen our faith and spend time with God. It is a time to deny ourselves and take up our cross again. Sometimes this feels like a burden, but when I think about taking up something, I think about the need to have open hands to carry it. The question then becomes, what do I need to let go of or lay down in order to carry the cross?
Is it the illusions I’ve been buying into or portraying to others? Is it the false self – that defensive ego self that needs to die so that I can discover the True Self found in the way of the cross? Do I have to lay aside my wants for the sake of others so that they might thrive? Or do I have to lose the idols I’ve been holding onto? As singer Audrey Assad writes, “I always thought idols were ‘worldly things,’ but now I realize a lot of them are just the ideas about God we hold too closely. We enshrine them, worship them, give everything to them. And then one day we realize we have made God in our own image, or in the image of those who have wounded us…the abusive dad, the alcoholic spouse, the fearful mother.” Whatever the illusion, we are called repeatedly throughout our lives to take up the cross of Christ – to center ourselves on that which gives life abundant.
Jesus’ words seem ridiculous to the disciples and us. The cross was an instrument of horrific torture and used to bring shame. And yet, it is there, losing our lives that we find true life. It is in confessing our sins that we find forgiveness. In admitting our struggles and weakness that we are renewed and strengthened. It is in humble service to the least of these that we learn joy, generosity, and gratitude.
We see this in creation when fields and underbrush are burned to clear the decay and debris for new plants to flourish. Or when parents give their precious sleep, their time, their very selves, to raise children. When caregivers run to take loved ones to appointments or often exhaust themselves caring for those they love. Still, in these moments, there is the development of roots, compassion, generosity, deepened relationships, and love. In following Christ’s downward path and laying down our lives – or the old way of living we thought so important – we find the real life that Christ offers. What is truly essential.
Each of us has to go through many of these little deaths as we follow Jesus. The road of discipleship is not easy. And we’d be lying if we stood up here and preached anything else. Both Pr. Joe and I took ordination vows and received the charge to “discipline yourselves in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.” We are called to speak a hard truth in Jesus’ name in order that we might all learn to follow Christ and grow in our faith – together.
I think about Jesus’ words: “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” I hear those words and ask myself: “What has to go through suffering, or die, or do we have to let go of, or lose in order to give birth to new life – to hope and a future?” “What has to die in me as an individual to bring forth new life?” “What about us as a church – any programs or ministries that need to go in order to proclaim the Gospel in new ways?” “What about us as a nation?”
A week and a half ago, on the day so many of us received ashen crosses on our brows and the reminder of our own frailty and mortality, we received news that 17 people were murdered in Parkland, Florida. Since that time, the debate about gun control and how to move forward has swirled and raged in our country. I am not here to play politics, but with Jesus’ words still ringing in my ears and on my heart, I ask, “what do we need to stop, change, or die to in order that there might be life, vitality, hope, and a future?” Do we need to risk the values and aspirations our world deems vital in order to gain our souls? Do we need to lose the culture of violence? Do we need to lose our need to be in control, our need to be right, our desire for acclaim, popularity, success, power, or, dare I say it, for votes? What do we need to lose in order to follow Christ into new life – into life that reflects the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven?
As the days warm, the rains come, trees begin to bud and, plants spring from the earth, we see the signs of new life coming from cold, darkness, and decay. Each of us can look back on our lives and see where hope and promise have been born out of tears and sorrow. So how might Jesus be inviting you to let go, to lose yourself, or even to die to those unhealthy illusions in order to embrace a life of following him? Pray about it. Talk about it with others. Come by on Wednesday evenings at 5:00 to talk to me or Pr. Joe. In this season of Lent, may Christ who has gone through death and been raised to new life give us strength to set our minds and our hearts on divine things. In his name we pray, Amen.