Sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

Mark 14:1-15:47

Each year right before or sometime during Holy Week, I pull out my copy of “The Passion of the Christ” and watch it. This is a spiritual practice that I have found gives me a “reset” and places me in the right frame of mind for heading into Holy Week. The actors in this movie learned Aramaic and Latin, so it gives me a feeling of being right there in these last days of Jesus’ life. But I think that, for me, what is the most striking and haunting scene of this movie is the opening scene, where Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. And as I was reading Mark’s account of Jesus’ Passion, this scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is what leapt out at me. What fascinated me was Jesus’ words when he came and found his disciples sleeping after he had been praying: “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

This jumped out at me because, just this past Wednesday, we finished up our Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer, and we talked about the petition, “Save us from the time of trial,” or “Lead us not into temptation”; the Greek can be translated either way. And it occurred to me how interesting this was, because while the Gospel of Mark does not tell of Jesus teaching his disciples this prayer, it does have him telling the disciples to pray for salvation from the time of trial, even as Jesus himself is undergoing a time of trial as he wrestles with God the Father over what he must do. In the movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” we see Jesus not only praying fiercely to God to let this cup pass from him, we also see the devil trying to entice Jesus with temptations. And even though none of the Gospels say that the devil was also present during that garden scene, I can’t help but wonder if the makers of that movie got a little divine inspiration there. It would make sense that Jesus would not only be pleading with the Father, but also struggling against the temptation to run away from the painful suffering he must go through.

Save us from the time of trial. Despite Jesus’ warning, Peter and the other disciples came into the time of trial and they failed miserably. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, they all fled into the night. Peter later followed to see what was going on, and when confronted with the fact that he was a Galilean and must therefore be one of Jesus’ followers, he denied ever having known Jesus. We, who have the gift of 20/20 hindsight and know how the story ends, often have the arrogance to think that we would have remained true to Jesus. But we should not think that. For we are human beings just like those in the story, and if we didn’t know the ending, how could we know with certainty what we would have done? Would we have been the righteous Pharisees, thinking that this Jesus was threatening our right interpretation of the faith handed down to us by our ancestors? Would we have been Judas, who betrayed Jesus? Would we have been the clueless and fearful disciples who fell asleep in the garden and then fled into the night? Would we have been Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus? Or would we have been the women, who watched Jesus being crucified from a distance but were helpless to intervene?

In contrast, Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering would be removed from him, but God said no to that prayer, and Jesus was able to face his time of trial and die for us on the cross. And perhaps the greatest pain of all for him was not the physical torture that he suffered on the cross. I think the greatest pain that Jesus felt was that pain of feeling that God had forsaken him, that his Father was nowhere nearby as he was dying. Jesus felt what it was like for us when we feel that God is nowhere near us. And yet, even though God did not save Jesus from his time of trial, it is through that death that Jesus won for us forgiveness of our sins.

So, as we enter this Holy Week, let us ponder the mystery of this story. Let us let the story speak to us in many different ways. Let us pray that God will save us from the time of trial. And let us remember that, even when we give in to the temptation, even when we fail the test, that God is with us and offers us forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross. And let us remember that God is faithful to us and will never forsake us, even in those times when we feel that he is nowhere nearby. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 5B

John 12:20-33

“Father, we love you, we worship and adore you. Glorify thy name in all the earth.” So goes the praise song that I’m sure many of you out there have heard. I am assuming that the composer took it from the verse that comes out of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus prays those very words as he looks toward his death on the cross. But, when we hear the word “glorify” what do we think it means? Do we think it means to praise God? Do we think it means that God should come in all of God’s glory and smite those evildoers and vindicate those who are faithful to God, whatever being faithful might mean in each person’s definition? Is God’s name only glorified when something good happens, or is God’s name glorified even in the midst of the most horrible event we could imagine? I’ll give you a hint: whenever a Lutheran pastor asks an “either/or” question, the answer is most likely, “Yes.”

Since I think it’s pretty easy for us to imagine God’s name being glorified in good things, we’re going to talk about God’s name being glorified even in the midst of the bad things in life. After all, when Jesus uttered the prayer, “Father, glorify your name,” he was in the midst of once more telling his disciples how he was going to die: tortured to death upon a Roman instrument of execution, the cross. Each Gospel writer tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion a little bit differently. In the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is seen as a victory: God’s triumph over the powers of the world and over the powers of sin. Jesus is in control from the beginning of his story until the end; he knows what is going to happen, and he bows his head in obedience to the will of the Father. And yet: he is afraid. He says, “Now my soul is troubled.” A better translation of that Greek phrase would be, “Now my soul is struck with terror.” Jesus, the one who, in this Gospel, is always in control, is still human and is absolutely terrified at the death he is to die. And yet, he knows that through this death, God’s name will be glorified and those who believe will be saved from their sins.

So, what does God glorifying God’s name look like in this day and age? Especially in all of the bad things that are happening in this world? I’d like to start with a story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian that some of you may have heard of. He was part of the German resistance to the Nazis in World War II, and was executed on April 9, 1945, just a month before VE Day, the day that the war ended in Europe. The thing is, Bonhoeffer didn’t have to die. He had been offered a position as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and he had traveled there several years before. He could have ridden out the war here in the United States, been a distinguished professor at a distinguished seminary, and lived a full and comfortable life. But he chose to return to Germany. At the time, he wrote to another distinguished theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and said, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America . . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people” (quoted in Provoking the Gospel of John, Richard W. Swanson, 136). Through the work that he did in Germany, and through his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer and his theological work have become well-known throughout a variety of Christian circles, and God brought glory to God’s name. But, lest we think that Bonhoeffer was calm about this momentous decision in his life, local stories at Union Theological Seminary say that he spent his last night in New York alone in his apartment, chain-smoking in a closet. Bonhoeffer’s soul, too, was struck with terror as he faced what God was calling him to do.

Even though this illustration fits with today’s Gospel text, I tell this story with some trepidation, because it seems larger than life, almost legendary. Looking back, World War II seems like a grand cause, ripe for many people, known and unknown, to follow God’s call to martyrdom and to witness to others about God on a grand scale. And while there are many more stories in today’s world of Jesus’ call to servanthood and to lose our lives for his sake, they always seem to involve going to a dangerous part of the world and facing the loss of a person’s physical life. What does losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake look like in Powell, Wyoming? How does God glorify God’s name among us?

To try and answer this, let’s go back to the event that occasioned Jesus’ speaking of God glorifying himself in Jesus: the request of the Greeks to see Jesus. Notice that we don’t ever find out if the Greeks got to see Jesus; all Philip and Andrew did was to tell Jesus of the request and then Jesus starts talking. Consider, though, that the Greeks would have been outsiders in the Jewish culture, which is why the disciples didn’t quite know how to handle their request to see Jesus. Who are the outsiders in today’s Christian culture who might want to see Jesus? I could think of several groups of people, but let’s pick this one: those who identify as spiritual, but not religious. This group of people, in general, may be searching for some kind of spirituality and may be open to it, but they have been turned off by what they call the institutional church and how the institutional church reacts to certain things in today’s society. How will they see Jesus being glorified through us?

I would like to suggest that, just as God was glorified through Jesus’ death on the cross, God is glorified in us when people outside of the church see how we behave in difficult situations, just as much as, if not more than, the good things in life. Of course people know of our witness to the love of God through the good works that we do: quilting, volunteering at community events, donating food, money, and time to things like Loaves & Fishes, Boys & Girls Club, Kiwanis, and so on and so forth. But what about the difficult situations?

This week the women’s circles had their Bible study on the book of Job. Job is part of what’s called the wisdom literature in the Bible, and it’s an attempt to answer that question, “If God is good, and if God is all-powerful, then why does God allow bad things to happen?” Job starts out in the first chapter of the book as the richest man in the known world—he literally has everything—and as a righteous man as well. And then everything is taken from him in one fell swoop: oxen and donkeys stolen, servants killed, fire from God killing his sheep and more servants, his camels stolen, and his sons and daughters killed. Job’s reaction to all of this misfortune: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And even though Job’s initial reaction seems to be quite calm, the majority of the story is Job lamenting his misfortune, crying out to God, asking why, cursing the day he was born, and so on and so forth. And yet, through all of that, Job is named as righteous.

How do we react to misfortune, to death, and to catastrophe? In the middle of our grief and anger at God, do we still pray that his name be blessed? Do we still trust that God is there in the midst of whatever overtakes us? Do we believe that God loves us even when we are angry at him and argue with him over whatever our situation might be? Even when we are terrified at what we think God is calling us into, do we acknowledge the fear and go into whatever it is that God is calling us to anyway, trusting that he will be there with us? I believe that it is our witness to others, in the face of these questions, that will enable those outside of the “institutional church” to see who Jesus truly is and what life in him looks like.

The hymn that we are going to sing in a few moments speaks of seeing Jesus on the cross, and what that means for our lives. That is the first and most important place that we see Jesus. It is what we testify to: that God is with us not just in the good and uplifting parts of our lives, but that he is also present in the most terrifying and painful parts of our lives. But we have another hymn in our hymnal that is a more direct prayer for God’s name to be glorified. It’s ELW #744, “Lord, Be Glorified.” And the prayer is that in our lives, in our song, in God’s church, and in the world, that the Lord would be glorified. Let this be our daily prayer as we go forth from here today: that in all that happens to us, good or bad, that our responses would glorify God’s name. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:14-21

There are times in the life of a pastor when she sees the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday and thinks, “Well, that’s pretty straightforward. I should be able to say, ‘OK, folks, Jesus loves you,’ and sit down again.” Some of you out there might be happy with such a one-line sermon, because that means that we can get through the rest of the service earlier than usual and we can all go home and have more time to relax. So, for those of you out there who are thinking that way, here’s your one-line sermon: JESUS LOVES YOU. But, I think many of you are probably expecting a little more than that, so I will take the time to add my additional thoughts on this passage from the Gospel of John that contains probably the most well-known verse in the Bible, the one that Martin Luther called, “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” 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.” By flashing this verse at sports events and embroidering it in needlepoint projects, we have tamed this verse into something that is ordinary, mundane, something that we shrug off and say, “Yes, OK, I get it already.” What I would like to do today is to get us to reimagine what a radical and heart-wrenching love this really is, this love that God has for us and for the whole world that he created.

In order to do that, we need to start with the image that Jesus uses in the beginning of this passage: the snake on a stick. And we have the Old Testament passage today where Jesus plucks that image from. It’s really a strange and frightening story, when you think about it: the Israelites are in the desert complaining about being in the desert, and complaining about the food, the manna, that the Lord is providing them with. So the Lord sends venomous snakes among the people, and some of them get bitten and die. When the people repent and Moses prays to the Lord, the Lord does not remove the snakes from among them: instead, he commands Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and then whenever someone gets bitten by a snake he or she can look at the bronze serpent and live. So many questions from this story! Why would God send venomous snakes to punish the people? And then why wouldn’t he take them away? Why go to all the trouble of making a bronze serpent so people could look at it and live? And, coming back to our Gospel, why in the world would Jesus use this troubling image to describe what he was going to do? Was Jesus something that, like the snake, first caused death to the people and then brought life? The whole thing just makes no sense to us.

And so I think that in order for us to get this image, we need to not think so deeply about it. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, and the people who were bitten by snakes and looked at the serpent lived. Jesus, the Son of Man, would be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, and those who look at him, those who trust in him, those who believe in him, will not die but will have eternal life. And the meaning is this: God is so great, God loves us so much, that even out of death, God can bring life. God can use even a horrible, tortuous death on the cross to bring life, not only to those who trust and believe in Jesus, but to Jesus himself, who would be raised from the dead after three days.

God so loved the world . . . despite all of the evil things that we humans do, God loves the world. The Greek word for world used here is κόσμος, which means not only “world,” but also includes all created beings, human, animal, and plant. God loves all of God’s creation, from you and me to our dogs, cats, cows, horses, birds, rabbits, and so on—even snakes!—which is one reason why we do the blessing of the animals each year—and even the trees and the grass. And God is heartbroken when we, stewards of God’s creation, misuse what he has asked us to care for. But God still loves the world so much that. . .

. . . he gave his only Son. God the Father gave us his only Son, Jesus Christ, to, as the hymn says, “walk upon this guilty sod and to become the Lamb of God.” Parents, think of how much you love your children. Then, multiply that by about a billion times. That is how much God loves Jesus, who is, in a mysterious way, also God. And that is also how much God loves us. And yet, he is willing to give Jesus to us, to teach us, to walk with us, to love us, and finally, to die for us, so that we can live abundantly. What costly and sacrificial love this truly is! We can never understand what exactly it cost God to do this for us, and we can never truly understand the immensity of God’s love for us. All we can do is ask God’s forgiveness for the wrong that we do, and praise and thank him for his love for us.

. . . so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life. When we hear the phrase “eternal life,” we automatically think of going to heaven when we die. But guess what? Eternal life starts from the moment that we are baptized. In John 10, Jesus says that he came so that his sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly.” In John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha at the death of her brother Lazarus, he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” From the moment that we are baptized, we receive the promise of abundant life, both here on earth with Jesus and in the resurrection, also with Jesus.

Such wonderful love that God has for all of his creation! But from this beautiful sentence, full of promise, we descend in the next few verses to threats of condemnation for those who do not believe. If God does indeed love the world, we ask, why would he condemn anyone for not believing in Jesus? Here, I think, we need to remind ourselves that we are not God, and we do not know God’s mind. Therefore, it is not up to any of us to judge whether or not a person believes in Jesus as God’s Son. We are simply called to love others as God has loved us.

There is nothing simple about this command, however. This past Wednesday night, we discussed the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that says “Give us this day our daily bread.” Martin Luther’s explanation says that “God gives daily bread . . . even to all evil people . . .” And we asked ourselves if we would be that generous if we were God. Would you give bread to a member of ISIS, for example, if he were hungry? And we decided it was probably good that none of us were God. Just so, it is not up to us to condemn another person if it seems like he or she does not believe in Jesus. That is God’s decision, and we are not God. We are called simply to love one another, and to leave the bigger judgments up to God.

There is nothing “simple” about the love that we are to show for one another. For just as God loved the whole world, the whole creation, enough to give his only Son, so, we, too, are called to that same kind of self-sacrificial love. It is God’s love that stirs within a young woman, compelling her to go to a dangerous place to care for children in a war-torn zone, and whose life is taken from her by militants in the region. It is God’s love that compels a nun to go to the poorest of the poor in a place called Calcutta, India, and who spends her life living with these poor ones, being poor herself, and serving them, giving up her life for the sake of people whom everyone else would prefer to forget. It is God’s love that stirs within those who visit the elderly of our community in the nursing home, sacrificing their time and keeping them company even when they can no longer recognize anyone. It is God’s love that stirs within us, asking us to sacrificially give of our time, talents, and treasure so that everyone can have the abundant life that Jesus has promised us.

I wonder if people who flash John 3:16 at sporting events truly begin to comprehend what they are inviting people into. For if the Holy Spirit leads you to believe in Jesus as God’s Son, then the Holy Spirit will be inviting you to truly transform your life. And transformation happens in different ways besides being a regular church-goer on Sunday mornings, although it does include that. Transformation happens when the Holy Spirit compels you to imitate the sacrificial love that God has for you. Transformation happens when the Holy Spirit sends you to places you never thought you’d go: to the hospital bed of the child who is about to have life support withdrawn, in order to mourn with the parents; to the bedside of someone suffering from cancer; to volunteer in a homeless shelter to help people be fed; halfway around the world to care for those whom everyone else has forgotten. If people knew that these things lie behind John 3:16, would they so casually hold up those signs at sporting events? God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Now, let us find ways to show others that sacrificial love, not only in word but also in deed. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 3B

Jesus cleansing temple meme

John 2:13-22

As we begin today’s sermon, I’d like for us to take a look at the picture above. The question “What Would Jesus Do?” is a part of a certain segment of Christian culture. It is an attempt to try to think and behave like Jesus did as we go about our daily interactions with other people. And usually the answer that we come up with for this question is in line with what our image of Jesus is: kind, loving, and forgiving. And there is nothing wrong with that: we should, in fact, be kind, loving, and forgiving in our interactions with other people. But, sometimes, we sinful human beings can carry that behavior to extremes, and then we get upset with ourselves when we get into arguments or become angry, cranky, or snarky. We forget that Jesus, during his lifetime here on earth, had his snarky and angry moments as well. And I think that this picture with its somewhat sarcastic response to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” can be a good corrective for us: it’s a reminder that Jesus got angry, too, because he was a human being. That’s what being the Word made flesh means: Jesus was a real human being, just like us.

Our problem, though, is how we deal with this angry Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of Jesus cleansing the temple, but they speak of it happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry: in fact, in those three Gospels, this was the last straw and what prompted the officials to get serious about arresting Jesus. John, in contrast, has this happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after he has turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. We might not think this different order of events is such a big deal until we look closer. For, in John, after Jesus does this outrageous act, nothing happens to him: the officials don’t want to arrest him even though he’s just seriously disrupted the livelihood of many people, as well as the sacrificial system of the temple. So, what’s going on here? What is the gospel of John trying to tell us by placing this incident where it does?

I think the answer lies in connecting this incident to the rest of the Gospel of John. The Gospel’s purpose is to show us who Jesus is, “the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). Throughout the Gospel, Jesus performs signs to show us who he is, and uses several I AM statements to show that he and God the Father are one. This incident where Jesus gets angry is one of John’s more subtle ways of showing who Jesus is: by placing the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of the Gospel, John is showing us that the sacrificial system is no longer necessary to come close to God. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who came to “pitch his tent among us,” and who is the new temple. Temple worship is no longer necessary, because Jesus is both where and who we worship. This is why Jesus refers to his body as the temple when he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” By driving the animals and the moneychangers out of the temple, Jesus is declaring that nothing will stand in the way of those who believe in him worshiping him in spirit and in truth.

During Lent, we engage in the three spiritual disciplines: fasting, praying, and giving to the poor. But we also spend time reflecting on the sins which we have committed which sent Jesus to the cross to die for us. And I think what today’s Gospel text is calling us to do is to reflect on this question: What kinds of things do we still put in the way of people knowing who Jesus is, believing and trusting in him, and worshiping him?

To reflect on this and try to answer this, I want to rephrase this question. This was one of the questions that I had planned to ask at the Wednesday night service as we were studying the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done. Here is the question: “Jesus gives priority to doing justice over observing religious rules and rituals. Do you think that religious rules and rituals might be used to mask injustice?” And to answer that question, I want to talk about how we as Christians treat people who identify as LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. To make myself clear, I am not speaking about same-sex marriage. That is a different topic, and it is one that I am not addressing right now. Today, I am simply addressing how people who identify as Christians treat those who identify as non-heterosexual.

In the Wyoming State Legislative session, there was a bill that originated in the Senate to add sexual orientation as a category, along with race, gender, age, disability, and so on, to the list of categories that businesses are not allowed to discriminate against when hiring qualified workers. Many businesses and industrial organizations in Wyoming supported this bill, because they felt it would help attract talented workers to the state of Wyoming. There was a broad religious exemption written in to the bill, so, for example, if this congregation does not want to call a pastor or other rostered worker who identifies as homosexual because of the beliefs of this congregation, we cannot be prosecuted for that. This bill passed the Senate by a wide margin. But when it went to the House of Representatives, it failed. And it failed, in large part, because of people who identify as Christians speaking against this bill.

Instead of speaking in love, these people spoke in fear. “This bill would force us to accept a type of behavior that many of us think is morally wrong.”  And yet, because of the lack of an anti-discrimination law, many people have been harassed in truly demeaning ways in this state by those who would call themselves Christian and go to church on Sunday mornings. Which is worse: accepting a type of behavior that many think is morally wrong, or tying someone who is gay to a fence and beating them to death? Is it any wonder that those who identify as LGBT have been turned off of coming to church, if this is the attitude and behavior of those who call themselves Christian?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, are we preventing our LGBT sisters and brothers from coming to know Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and to have life in his name? In your hymnals you will find a bookmark with our statement of welcome on it. About halfway down the bookmark you will find these words, “We want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.” This is a good statement. But what I’m asking is for us to reflect on our attitudes. How will this segment of the population know that they are welcome here at Hope unless we do something more than state it on our hymnal bookmarks? As people of faith, we need to be letting the LGBT population know we love them by contacting our representatives and senators in the state legislature and telling them how disappointed we are that this anti-discrimination bill did not pass. We need to tell our legislators that God loves all people, and that our society needs to reflect that. And we need to work on supporting a new anti-discrimination bill the next time it comes before the legislature.

I know that many of us have different beliefs on homosexuality and its place in our society, and I think that’s still okay. But regardless of our beliefs, our attitude both in and outside of this church building should be one of welcome: treating each person we meet as a beloved child of God and as one desperately in need of hearing the Gospel message of the love of Christ and his saving work for us on the cross. Yes, there are lines in the Bible that speak against homosexuality. But, there are also verses that speak against divorce, and we have no problem welcoming those who are divorced into our midst. It is time that we extend that same gracious and loving welcome for those who are LGBT. For we are all sinners, and the church should be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for those who think they are perfect.

Lest you think that all Christians in the state of Wyoming spoke out against this anti-discrimination bill, let me give you a different perspective. As some of you know, I sit on the board for the Wyoming Association of Churches. One of the things this group does is speak out for or against bills that we together think have some relation to the call of Jesus and the prophets that is summarized by the prophet Micah, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The Wyoming Association of Churches comes to these decisions by a consensus of the board. And in this case it was the board’s consensus that, even though our member churches have different beliefs about homosexuality, that it was good and right for us to speak out in favor of this bill that would have outlawed discrimination against a person because of sexual orientation. For this is the kind of justice that Jesus commands us to do: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

So, this brings me back to the picture : “If someone asks, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ remind them that turning over tables and breaking out whips is a possibility.” Jesus got angry in today’s Gospel. I believe he was angry that all of these things, all of this buying and selling, was standing in the way of people worshiping God in spirit and in truth. And that anger was born out of a fierce love that God has for us, the same kind of fierce love that causes a mother or a father to defend their child to the death. There are times in our walk of faith when we, too, need to have that fierce anger born out of love, a love for the people whom society considers “the least of these,” and a time when we need to overturn tables and break out whips. We need to confess our sins and to repent of what we have done and what we have left undone. And when someone points out an obstacle that we have placed in the way of knowing who Jesus is, then we need to do our best to remove that obstacle. Then, and only then, will people know that we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 2B

Mark 8:31-38

This week in our Thursday morning Bible study, we were talking about Peter in another story about him in the Book of Acts. One question that we thought about was, if we were casting an actor to play Peter in a movie or TV show about this story, who would we cast? As we were discussing different actors, we were also thinking about what we knew of Peter from stories about him in the Gospels as well as Acts. And Ann said, and I think I have her permission to share this, that Peter is the kind of guy who’s a sweetheart but who’s also a pain in the neck.  Then, after the Bible study that morning, I read the God Pause devotion over email, and the author wrote, “Sometimes I just want to slap some sense into that so-called rock of a disciple. After all the time he spent with Christ and everything he saw, how can he not trust him at this point in the story?” We all love Peter for his great confession of faith, which happened just before today’s passage. When Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with, “You are the Messiah.” And we want to jump up and say, “Yes! He got it!” And then, in the next moment, Jesus calls Peter Satan because he rebukes Jesus for saying that being the Messiah means rejection, suffering, and death. And we shake our heads as we witness Peter going from the heights of brilliance to the depths of stupidity. But the reason we like Peter is that we can all identify with him. We are Peter—we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, but we don’t understand what that means, and we try to make Jesus over into the Savior that we want him to be.

In order to unpack that statement, I want to start with the last part of the Gospel lesson, where Jesus says, “Those who are ashamed of me in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” If you spend any time at all on Facebook, you’ll come across this quote with a nice, fuzzy picture of gentle Jesus and the person who posted it saying something like this: “If you’re not ashamed of him, post him on your wall. I’m not ashamed of him, and I know my friends aren’t, either.” You know something? When I come across this on Facebook, I usually just scroll right on by. Because somehow I think that when Jesus said this, he wasn’t imagining people guilting one another into putting a picture of him on their Facebook walls.

The key to not being ashamed of Jesus lies in what he said earlier: “Any who would become my followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: we have tamed the cross. We wear it around our necks and hang crosses in our homes and decorate our accessories with the cross. We may as well hang an electric chair or a hangman’s noose around our necks. The cross was a Roman instrument of torture and execution. Condemned criminals were the ones who hung on crosses. And it was a shameful way to die, because the person was hung naked on the cross—not even with the loincloth we put on our representations of Jesus to pay homage to our modesty. And criminals who were hung on crosses were hung in public for their friends, their family, and every passing stranger to see. And it took hours for the person to die, so everyone who passed by that way would see the painful torture of asphyxiation that the human body would go through as it slowly died on the cross.

So, can you imagine how shocking it was to the disciples to hear Jesus say that any who wanted to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him? Take up their cross? Really? Does Jesus really mean that? Take up a cross and be executed, shamefully, in front of everyone? Surely not! We can understand now why Peter would have taken Jesus aside and rebuked him. The Greek word that is translated “rebuke,” is the same word the Gospel writers use to describe what Jesus does when he “rebukes” the evil spirits that are possessing a person. This suggests that Peter literally thought Jesus was possessed by an evil spirit, to be suggesting that he would die this kind of death! But if we realize that people were expecting the coming Messiah to rescue the Jewish people from Roman oppression and to restore their earthly kingdom, and that Peter had just confessed his belief that Jesus was indeed that Messiah, then we can understand how important it was to Peter that his confession of who Jesus was and his belief of what Jesus was here to do would be validated.

The problem we have now here in the United States is the question of how do we follow Jesus? How do we take up our cross when the cross is no longer used as a method of execution? How do we deny ourselves in order to follow Jesus? Some of us are denying ourselves by fasting from something during Lent, and perhaps giving the money saved from whatever we’ve given up to a worthy cause, such as ELCA World Hunger. But when Jesus is talking about his followers denying themselves, he’s talking about denying all of the earthly things that give you your identity and finding your identity, your purpose, in something that the earth views as shameful; that is, finding your identity as a person who follows a man who was condemned to die in the most shameful, tortuous way that the state could devise at that time. By not letting your job, your family, your place, your connections, your status in society, and so on and so forth, define you, and by following a Savior who died on the cross, you are dying to the world and finding a new life in Jesus; a new vocation in how he calls you to follow him; a new family among other followers of Jesus; perhaps a new place in which to live out your vocation, and a new status as a beloved child of God.

But following a Savior who emptied himself for us is a struggle. Like Peter, we often want to see a mighty Savior, one who condemns those who we think are wrong, and lifts us up as those who are right. When Jesus talks about all of this dying to self and taking up the cross stuff, we, too, want to take him aside and say, “Hush, Jesus, don’t talk about that. We know what you really want is for us to be happy, right? If you love us, surely everything is going to be all right, and all I have to do is post nice fuzzy pictures of you on Facebook and then I can keep living my life as I am, since I’m so comfortable.” This is precisely the point when Jesus will turn to us and tell us to get behind him. But, you know what? That is the natural place of someone who follows: behind the leader. And Jesus will remind us of that every time we try to take over the leader’s position. You know that bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is my co-pilot”? Well, that’s bad theology right there, because it still leaves us in the driver’s seat and in control. Rather, we should say that Jesus is our pilot, and we are trusting in him to be with us through the storms of life and to get us through them.

Life as a follower of Jesus is not going to be easy. Jesus may lead us into some difficult terrain, and just like Peter did, we will stumble and fall. We will try to take over and be the leader, and we will try to put Jesus in our pocket and think that we have him all figured out. It is then that we will discover that when we thought we were taking up the cross and following him, we weren’t really doing that at all. Jesus did not come to make us comfortable and respectable. Jesus came to deny himself, that is, to empty himself, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians; to be born in human likeness, to become obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross! And he urges those who would come after him to do the same: to deny ourselves, to find our new life in him, and to live our lives in service to others and to him. So, in whatever ways Jesus is calling us as individuals and as a congregation to take up our cross and follow him, let us do so humbly, striving to never take over the position of leader, but always following behind him. For only in that way will we find new life in him. Amen.