Category Archives: Lent

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “We Need the Cross”

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Today I’m writing over at Conversations on the Fringe:

When we skip over and avoid the cross, we miss out on a God who is with us in the flesh, walking alongside us as we walk what may sometimes be a long, lonely road.

But to skip out on the cross also causes us to miss out on a radical and bold Jesus we are all called to follow.  For, it was Jesus’ loud, subversive voice that challenged injustice and proclaimed on behalf of the “least of these” that got him into trouble in the first place and led him to be silenced on the cross.

You can read the rest here.

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Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Maundy Thursday: You’ve Been Served”

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Today I’m writing over at Conversations on the Fringe.

“We must not forget that as pastors and youth workers we, too, cannot give, serve, love, and care for our parishioners, youth, and their families without first being served… By Jesus and by so many of our siblings who are called to be Christ’s hands and feet to us.

Because when we do allow our feet to be washed, we just might be surprised at how much we really needed to be cleansed so that we might be better equipped to return this loving act.”

You can read the rest here.

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Lent: An Invitation to Retreat”

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Why observe Lent?  How might we observe Lent in our personal lives, with our families, or in our youth ministries?

I’ve shared a few of my thoughts and included a list of Lenten resources (for youth groups, for families, and for personal devotion) in my latest post at Conversations on the Fringe.

“But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser. So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who we are and whose we are.”

To read the rest, click here.

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Ash Wednesday: Let Us Return To God”

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Today I’m blogging over at conversationsonthefringe.com:
“It is Ash Wednesday: the day we are called to be reminded of our mortality by receiving ashes – the symbol of mourning and repentance – in the sign of the cross on our foreheads…
From dust we came and to dust we shall return.
It is on this day that we hear the prophet Joel’s commission:
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
And it is on this day that we begin our Lenten path: our journey through the wilderness and toward the cross…”
You can read the rest here.

“Nevertheless, She Persisted” – Sermon on John 11:1-45

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Try to imagine yourself in the story. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 

11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

As we get to act two in our story, take note of the emotions of and the interactions between the women and Jesus.

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when (Mary) heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 

In act three of our story, pay close attention to how Jesus takes on the pain of Mary and Martha and how he responds to it.

34(Jesus) said, “Where have you laid him?” (The women) said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 

41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the (crowd), “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. – John 11:1-45

If we keep reading past our assigned text for this morning, we would see that this very loving and compassionate act of raising Lazarus from the dead is what leads to Jesus’ death sentence on the cross. Take a few moments in silence to reflect on what this means about Jesus’ love for Mary and Martha and what it means about his love for us.

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She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

These words – which were originally used to quiet the voice of a woman senator in February – have been turned into the powerful battle cry for many women this past month. It didn’t take too long before these words were made into a hashtag, were being shared through memes, and were even being proclaimed on tattoos and t-shirts.

While many women today know quite well what it’s like to be quieted, nevertheless, they have persisted.

I love how these words especially ring true this morning.

For one thing: here we are, on the first Sunday after the one Women’s History month has come to a close. And while women still continue to be silenced at the pulpits… Well… let’s just say I’m very thankful for the many women who have gone before us to pave the way and for the many communities who do support women in ministry.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

But these words can also be heard crying out this morning through our Gospel text in John.

Here, in the midst of our very long story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, we keep hearing the voices of Martha and Mary.

And despite the fact that their female voices had no importance or place in society: nevertheless, they persisted.

Now, as we are getting ready to follow Jesus toward Jerusalem beginning next week, some of you might be wondering why I would focus on these women rather than focus on what might seem to be the obvious good news of this story: Jesus’ act of raising Lazarus from the dead and thus foreshadowing his own death and resurrection that we will soon encounter.

And, yes: this is – indeed – good news.  Through Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life… And not just in a heavenly kind of sense somewhere “out there” in another time and another place.  But the resurrection of Lazarus shows us that we don’t have to sit around and wait until our physical bodies die before we get to experience this new life Jesus offers us. And we don’t have to wait until Easter before we get to live as resurrection people. Rather, in Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus actually brings about new life right here and right now.

You see, just as Jesus calls Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, he calls us to do so, as well. Jesus calls us out of the tomb, from our own sense of lifelessness, and he frees us from the worldly expectations, insecurities, and sin that bind us. Yes, Jesus offers us new life, calling us to no longer live as we are dead, but rather to choose to live our lives fully.  This is, indeed, good news!

But the thing that I think is often missed when we look at this resurrection story in John is that this good news would not have been proclaimed had it not been for the two women. The resurrection of Lazarus would not have even taken place if it weren’t for the persistence of Martha and Mary.

You see, it was Martha and Mary who sent a message to Jesus letting him know Lazarus was ill in the first place. And when Lazarus died because Jesus had waited around for two whole days before going to Bethany to see him, it was Martha who confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when it seemed like Jesus was not going to do anything about the death of Martha’s brother, it was Martha who ran to her sister, Mary, and told her to go find Jesus.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when Mary was distraught over the death of her brother, it was she who fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

You see, it was the persistence of these two women (whom Jesus loved dearly) that opened his eyes to their pain, which greatly disturbed him in spirit and deeply moved him to tears.

It was Mary and Martha’s persistence that moved the one who is the Resurrection and the Life to compassionately respond to their suffering by raising Lazarus from the dead, calling him out of the tomb, and inviting Jesus’ disciples to help free Lazarus from all that kept him bound.

So may we too – like Martha and Mary – keep on persisting, even and especially in times that feel hopeless. May we too – like Jesus’ disciples – open our eyes to the good news being proclaimed through those who do persist. And may we too – like Jesus – be greatly disturbed in spirit at the suffering and injustice around us and thus be deeply moved to respond.

“The Gospel in a Nutshell” – Sermon on John 3:1-17

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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. “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. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Grandma said you can’t have, you wait until she is watching her evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

Or when you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Most of us know that it is in the dark where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

And I think this is why Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night just before today’s Gospel passage in John. It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he is going and find out what he is up to.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, by the third chapter of John, we see that Jesus had already become quite the rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers who were taking advantage of the poor.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spreads to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they begin to talk, as well. But as they voice their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely don’t speak too kindly of Jesus.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus is curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus says to him: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

*****

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He was born a Jew, was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? Or those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? This was completely unheard of.

*****

Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

To give you a little background of this story: the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. And as their impatience increases, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt. And they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain about their food and their living conditions to Moses and they complain against God.

So God punishes the Israelites for rebelling against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil in the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are ready go back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punishes God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would acknowledge and call out the evil systems in the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

*****

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced 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.”

God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now Nicodemus is finally starting to see…

But Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God so loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: this eternal life “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe in, put our trust in, and follow Jesus Christ in his radical and inclusive way of love.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… a baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others… And when we start to repent of our own participation in and benefits from today’s oppressive systems.

This eternal life is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God offers us salvation from the evil in the world and calls us to take part in freeing ourselves and all our neighbors from it. That God saves us from the sins we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how snaky it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love for us, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

The eyes of the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus are finally beginning to open. He is starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God Jesus is telling him about involves grace, justice, and abundant love, which is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. For God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. Rather, God loves the cosmos.

God loves the whole world.

And God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

Save the whole world from captivity and oppression. Save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it.

And those who believe in Jesus, put their trust in him, and follow him in dismantling the evil systems of this world and sharing God’s inclusive love to the world will begin to experience this eternal life Jesus speaks of.

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world. For God so loved Nicodemus.  For God so loves me.  For so God loves you… in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, this truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

 

 

“Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” – Sermon on Mark 9:1-13

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At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9

At the end of my senior year of college, the compassionate and kind-hearted 15 year old sister of my college boyfriend was killed in a car accident. I will never forget some of the things people said to us after she passed away.

“God just wanted another angel.” “God’s timing is just not our timing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Just remember, even though you can’t understand it now, this is all part of God’s plan.” “God only tests us to make us stronger.” “God is in control.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

While these family friends meant well, some of the things they said not only made us feel additional pain and anger, inadequacy for not being able to “handle” this tragedy the way we were expected to, and misunderstood and alone during one of the most difficult times of our lives, but they also reinforced some incredibly dangerous ideas about God’s character and God’s relationship with humankind.

I didn’t want to have anything to do with the God these friends spoke of. To be quite honest, I had to work very hard to refrain from screaming back at them: “That’s bull… you know what!” Really? – I kept thinking. This was in God’s plan? God gave this tragedy to us… to test us!? And God wanted another angel, huh? I wanted to ask. Well then, why didn’t God take someone who had lived a long and wonderful life, not a girl who only got to live 15 short years?

And if everything happens for a reason: what about the horrific violent acts that occur across our country and our world? Are those part of God’s plan, too? – I wanted to ask them.

… As Proverbs 25:20 says: “Like vinegar on a wound 
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

A few years after I graduated from college, I found out my college boyfriend and I were not the only ones whose friends sang songs to heavy hearts. When my colleague’s mom was battling cancer, one of his mom’s friends told her she was not praying hard enough… That if she prayed more often and had more faith that God would heal her, she would be healed of her cancer. She prayed frequently but she never healed and she eventually passed away. My colleague told me that even though his mom was one of the most faithful people he knew, sometimes she felt like her cancer was a result of her just not being faithful enough.

While incredibly hurtful and unhealthy, the way this friend responded to her cancer and the way friends responded when my college boyfriend’s sister passed away are very common human responses to tragedy. We want to seek answers to why there is suffering in our world. To make sense of the things that just don’t make sense. Because there has to be a reason for the senselessness in this world, doesn’t there? There has to be a cause for the effect. There has to be someone or something we can blame for human suffering… when our friend’s younger sister dies in a car accident or our friend is diagnosed with cancer. When our brother goes through a painful divorce or we see homelessness and unemployment rates begin to skyrocket. When an earthquake kills thousands or a terrorist attack shakes up our sense of security.

Because if we find a reason – if we find a cause for the tragedy – we think we will then be able to quickly fix the pain of those who are hurting.  And we think that we – ourselves – will be able to avoid the tragedies that we see others face and that we fear might one day hit us. We think that we will be able to avoid these tragedies if we just find their root cause.  If we just refrain from committing those sins, if we just pray more than that person prayed, if we just work harder than those people do, or if we just avoid those people and those places altogether.

*****

This is similar to what the Galileans who spoke with Jesus in our passage in Luke were struggling with. They – too – were seeking answers to why certain tragedies had recently occurred. They wanted to know why the Roman governor Pilate had slaughtered a group of fellow Galilean Jews while they were making sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and then mixed the dead’s blood with the sacrificial blood. These Galileans who were talking with Jesus wanted to know why a tower near the pool of Siloam unexpectedly collapsed and killed the 18 people who were at the tower. These tragedies must have happened for a reason… because everything happens for a reason. And that reason must have been that those slaughtered in the Temple and those 18 killed by the collapsing tower sinned something terrible… They must have really ticked off God – because – as most first century religious folks believed – tragedy was a punishment from God and suffering was a form of God’s testing.

But as the Galileans begin speculating, Jesus asks them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!”

No, these tragedies have nothing to do with the character or actions of the victims. No, God does not punish or test people for their sins with state sanctioned violence or natural disasters. No, God does not punish or test people with illness, the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, homelessness, war, or any other tragedy that leaves us wondering, “why God?” God isn’t the wrathful, short-tempered vengeful God many confuse God to be. And you – Jesus seems to be saying to the Galileans around him – are not standing here now avoiding tragedy because you are any better or more faithful than these victims are.

No, I tell you!

The way the world works isn’t that bad things just happen to bad people and good things just happen to good people… as much as we may wish this to be so. Because many times good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Tragedy just hits, and it can hit any of us. And it isn’t God doing this to our neighbors or to us. It just happens. It’s part of being human in this good and yet fallen world where we are both sinner and saint. Where we are both created good and in God’s image and yet we all fall short of the glory of God. It is the unexplainable mystery of being predestined and having free will: where – as humans, we are both chosen and called by God and yet we also get to choose what paths in life we are to take and we get to choose how we are to live. And it’s the crappy part of free will because with free will – with human choice – comes the bad, the evil, the suffering, the tragedies. However, we must also remember that with free will – with choice – comes the very very good, as well. We cannot have creativity, kindness, acts of compassion, hope, joy, peace, love, or even faith without it.

*****

Jesus then tells the Galileans a parable.

“A man has a fig tree in a garden,” Jesus says. “But when the man sees the fig tree, he realizes it is not producing any fruit. He finds his gardener and says: ‘Look at this fig tree! It is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. For three years it’s been sitting here, and it is still not producing any fruit. It’s just sitting in my garden wasting soil, wasting space, doing nothing. There is no point to it being here, so cut it down!’ But the gardener says: ‘Don’t give up on it just yet. Give the fig tree another year. I will take care of it and tend to it regularly. I will dig around it and place manure on it, so it will bear fruit. In a year, check it out, and if it still doesn’t bear fruit by then, you may cut it down.’”

You see, Jesus is reiterating to the Galileans through this parable that God isn’t an unloving tyrant. Even if God’s people are not bearing fruit, God doesn’t just immediately cut us down and throw us away like the owner of the garden wanted to do with his fig tree. Instead, like the gardener, God is our loving advocate. God cares for us and tends to us. God sees our potential, holds onto hope that we will be fruit bearers, and doesn’t give up on us.

Therefore – Jesus seems to be urging the Galileans – since God is not the punishing and testing God they assumed God to be, rather than focusing on finding reasons for why bad things happen, the Galileans should instead focus on their own lives: on being bearers of fruit for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Repent, he urges. Turn around. Turn from your old ways and turn toward God. Choose God’s way.

But there is urgency in this parable, as well. “Let’s see what happens in a year,” the gardener says. “Let’s see if the fig tree bears fruit a year from now.”

Jesus knows that life is precious. Heck, the recent tragedies that took place in the Temple and at the tower – and not to mention, Jesus’ impending journey toward the cross – remind him of this fact. And the same goes for us. When we hear of the tragedies and suffering around us, we are often reminded of our own mortality.

From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

Tragedies often remind us just how fragile and precious life can be. Yes, bad things happen – to good people even – and can happen to anyone of us – at any time.

This realization can be extremely scary.

And yet, we can allow our fears to overcome us or we can instead embrace this reality and place our focus on being bearers of fruit. We can continue our old ways, or we can turn from them and turn toward God. We have been chosen and we have a choice. And we can choose to allow our fear of our mortality and life’s fragility to keep us from actually living and loving, or we can choose to embrace our mortality and the fact that life is fragile and we can let this realization inspire us to live and to love fully.

To be present in the moment. To take advantage of the precious time we do have with our loved ones. To sit with, cry alongside, and listen to those who are suffering and – rather than sing songs to their heavy hearts – we can acknowledge that their suffering just flat out sucks. To not just take up space in the world, but rather to use our gifts to make a difference in the lives of those around us. To make our precious time here count.

Why do bad things happen to good people? – we ask. It’s the great unexplainable mystery. We don’t know why. They just happen. But what we do know is that we have a compassionate God who knows our pain more than anyone else does. Who weeps over tragedy, suffering, and injustice in this world and never leaves us to grieve or to suffer alone. And who loves us so much that God does not give up on us, but instead continues to tend to us, to care for us, and to believe in us.

So may we choose to turn toward this loving God. May we choose to be bearers of fruit: and to live and to love.

Amen.

 

Guest Post at Bold Cafe: “Faith Reflections: Beloved and Wonderfully Made”

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Today I am guest blogging over at Bold Cafe: “Faith Reflections: Beloved and Wonderfully Made.”

It is really hard to be a preteen or teenager today. I unfortunately know this because as a pastor who works with youth, I have seen this firsthand. I’m not saying that it wasn’t difficult to be that age. I received my fair share of unrealistic and unhealthy messages about society’s definition of beauty and who was worthy and who was not. All I had to do was watch a few VH1 videos, stop at the magazine rack at a convenience store, or listen to my middle school classmates who bullied me during lunch to know that I did not fit into society’s most-valued list.

However, it is much more difficult today to shut out the negative messages about who is deemed worthy in the eyes of society and one’s peers.

 

To read the rest, click here.

“Snakes, Grace, and Eternal Life: The Gospel in A Nutshell” – A sermon on John 3:14-21

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“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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21


When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

Everyone knows the best time to sneak around and get away with stuff is at nighttime when it is dark.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Mom and Dad said you can’t have, you wait until they are watching their evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

When you are not supposed to watch that R rated movie because it’s too violent, you wait until your parents go to bed before you quietly turn the movie on in the dark tv room.

When you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, close the door, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Or when your conscience tells you to befriend someone who isn’t quite so popular among others, but you fear that associating with her might affect your reputation, you only talk to her in secluded dark hallways and only hang out with her on the playground when it’s past dark and nobody’s around.

Most of us know that it is in the darkness where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

*****

And so I think this is why – at the beginning of John 3 just before our passage for today – Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night… It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he was going and find him out.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, Jesus did just that… by the 3rd chapter of John, he had already become a rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily driving out the money-changers and turning over the tables in the Temple.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spread to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they began to talk, as well. But as they voiced their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely didn’t speak too kindly of him.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus was curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus proclaims: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

What on earth could this mean?

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. How could he? He was born a Jew, is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? To those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? To just any old Jane or Joe? How could this be?

*****

Our passage for today begins here, as Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. Jesus says: “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.”

This story Jesus references takes place in our Old Testament lectionary text for today in Numbers 21. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. As they were getting impatient, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt – and they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain to Moses and against God. “Why haven’t we gotten to the Promised land yet? Why have you left us out here in the wilderness to die? We are sick and tired of this journey. We are sick and tired of this food, which isn’t good enough for our liking. Why!? Why!? Why!?”

So the Israelites are punished for their rebellion against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are now ready to refocus. They are ready to put the trivial things they were complaining about behind them and look upon the wilderness with new eyes. They are ready to put their trust back in God and to return back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punished God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would remember that evil is in inherent in all things of the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced 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.”

“Ah,” Nicodemus must have thought as the light bulb begins to flicker on. “God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now I am starting to see.”

*****

Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: the eternal life Jesus is speaking about in John “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [For example, it is] what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet [it] is also time-independent… [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

And as one scholar suggests, eternal life described in John is: “everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God through Christ. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe – and put our trust in – Jesus Christ, the One who manifests the greatness of God’s love and sets us an example for how we are to share that love with the world.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… A baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others and God.

Eternal life is a transformational life that is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God has saved us from the evil that is inherent in all things of the world. That God has saved us from our sin we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how sneaky and nasty it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but may have eternal life…

“Indeed,” Jesus continues: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Here in John 3, Jesus is saying to this law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus: “Yes, Nicodemus. Your eyes are finally beginning to open. You are starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God I am talking about involves grace. It involves abundant love.

However, this grace is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. God loves the cosmos. God loves the whole world. And, while the current legal religious system is one that has been excluding those of other heritages, social standings, economic statuses, and those who cannot maintain obedience to the strict laws – God’s kingdom is one that is inclusive of ALL.

God loves the whole world.

God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

That God would save the whole world from captivity and oppression. That God would save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it. God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal and abundant life in God’s loving and grace-filled presence.”

*****

I think our New Testament reading from the letter of Ephesians explains this well:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… All of us once… follow[ed] the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. And [God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

*****

For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but may have eternal life.

“Yes, those who believe in me,” Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in our text in John 3, “those who put their trust in me, those who follow me in sharing this love to the whole world will begin to experience this new eternal life. This new life – which is not of the flesh, but is from above. This abundant life – in which God’s love and grace is experienced and emulated to the whole world so that the whole world might be saved.”

*****

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later in John defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world, for God loved Nicodemus, for God loves me, for God loves you… in this way: that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with Martin Luther. This truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

“Let Go and Let God: A Call to Discipleship for all of us ‘Mess-ups'” – Lent 2 Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

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Then he began to teach them 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.” – Mark 8:31-38

Peter is a complete mess-up.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see his fear gets the best of him when Jesus asks him to walk on the water. In John, we see that Peter is the one who cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest. And in all four Gospels, we see that it is Peter who denies Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.

And so it’s probably no surprise to us that it is – indeed – this very same Peter who is the mess-up in our text for today in Mark. And as we watch this scene unfold, many of us may even roll our eyes at him, wondering whether or not Peter will ever learn.

But the thing is, I think that Peter tends to get a bad rap. Because – to be quite honest – I get Peter. I understand where he’s coming from.

You see, Peter is the first disciple to be called to follow Jesus. He is in the ultimate inner-circle. And he puts his complete trust in this rabbi, leaving behind everything he had and knew to become Jesus’ student and to follow him day in and day out.

And my guess is that it probably didn’t take Peter very long to realize that he put his trust in the right teacher, because in Mark’s Gospel, after he calls a few other fishermen to follow him, Jesus immediately begins to impress the crowds. He teaches on the streets and in the synagogues on the Sabbath day with great authority. He rebukes and commands unclean spirits, and they obey him. He performs many miracles, healing people with a wide variety of illnesses and ailments, casting out demons and forbidding them to speak, and even restoring a little girl on her death-bed back to life. While on a boat, he rebukes the winds and quiets a storm. He walks on water. He turns a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands. He gains quite the following of those without power and pushes the buttons of those in power.

This rabbi is not just like any other rabbi. This rabbi teaches, preaches, and acts with great authority and influence.

This must be the One the Jews had so long been waiting for. The One who would liberate God’s people from oppression and suffering. The One who would come to take on the worldly crown, claim victory over the powers that be, and turn the Roman Empire upside down, releasing God’s people from its captivity.

And it is this long expected Savior who chose Peter first! Peter can pat himself on the back a little bit, because that’s got to count for something!

And so, when Jesus stops the disciples on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and asks who they say he is: it is Peter – this first-chosen disciple, eye-witness to Jesus’ great acts, and Jesus’ close friend and student in the inner-most circle – who confidently and boldly blurts out the correct answer: “While some say you are John the Baptist or Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets, I say you are the long-expected Messiah!”

DING! DING! DING! And the prize deservedly goes to Peter, the first-chosen, most studious disciple who knows Jesus the best!

But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He explains that soon he is going to have to endure great suffering. He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And he will be killed. And after three days, he will rise again.

*****

I can totally picture Peter in this scene. I can see his confidence in who he believed Jesus to be immediately get squashed, and I imagine his doubts starting to kick in about whether or not he was right about this guy. I can feel the fear creep in as he starts to think about his teacher undergoing such rejection, humiliation, and suffering, and I can feel the pain shoot through his body as he starts to think about losing his dear friend to death.

In this moment, as Jesus reveals the impending tragedy to his dear friends, I can imagine this first-chosen Peter, as he grabs Jesus’ arm and angrily pulls him aside from the other disciples before Jesus gets the chance to say anything more. I can hear his rebukes to Jesus, as if they were my own: “What are you doing, Jesus!? You have been teaching and preaching with authority! You’ve performed miraculous acts before our very own eyes! You are the MESSIAH! The One with divine power that can dominate over all worldly powers! Why on earth would you allow these things to happen? There must be another way! We put our complete faith in you and gave everything up to follow you! Why are you choosing to forsake us now?”

I can relate to Peter so well in this text because I have been there before.

Like him, I have found myself thinking at times that since I have dutifully sacrificed a lot in my life to follow Jesus, it is only fair that Jesus calls me to do only the things that I want to do. And when Jesus suddenly tells me I need to let go of my traditions or my insecurities or what feels comfortable and I need to make a few more sacrifices or do some things that are out of my comfort zone, I feel Jesus has abandoned me.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times thinking that I am a first-chosen disciple, one in the inner-most circle, who knows Jesus and Jesus’ mind more than anyone else. And therefore, when someone disagrees with me, it is I who has the authority. I am the one who has all the answers about faith, theology, politics, what changes should occur or traditions should remain in the church, how one should choose a particular lifestyle to live. I am the one who is right.

Like Peter, I have patted myself on the back a few times, thinking that this call to following Jesus was all about me. What accomplishments I’ve made. How many people I’ve gotten to come through the church doors. How many twitter and facebook followers have liked my blog posts. How many times I’ve volunteered at the food pantry, attended church worship or events, or participated in protests and marches for justice. And so when Jesus all of a sudden reminds me that following him is actually just that: about following him, I just want to grab his arm, pull him aside, and let him know he’s got another thing coming.

Like Peter, there have been times when I have stood confidently before God and before others, boldly proclaiming who I thought I knew Jesus to be, only to be completely thrown off-guard when Jesus shows me I have gotten him so wrong.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times to put trust and faith in God’s existence only if God proves to be all-powerful. To believe that God is with me when things are going well in my life, but when things take a down-hill turn, to believe God has suddenly failed me and disappeared.

It’s easy to believe that the Gospel is all about us. That it is about our willpower and our accomplishments… How we can hold it together on our own. That it is about how many followers we gain. (And by golly, look at how much more faithful we are compared to those folks who haven’t accomplished as much as we have. Who don’t do as much leading, volunteering, worshiping, or justice-making as we do.)

And it is easy to believe that the Gospel is just about an all-powerful, quick fix God. One who will immediately come to our rescue when things go wrong and make everything okay. One who only came in the flesh to authoritatively and magically calm storms, heal people’s ailments, drive out demons, and turn a few loaves of bread into thousands.

I want this to be the Gospel. I want the Gospel story to end right then and there.

But it doesn’t.

*****

As we see in our text in Mark: Jesus tells the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi that the Gospel continues into Jerusalem and toward the cross.

I think we all have this tendency to want to avoid that dreadful journey and that horrific cross. To skip right over it and go from waving the Palm branches to singing the Halleluiah chorus.

But the thing is: we can’t have the resurrection without first going through the cross.

And Jesus knows this. So Jesus responds to Peter: “Get behind me, Accuser! Don’t try to get in the way of my journey toward the cross. For you are thinking, as humans do, on worldly things. You are not thinking on divine things, as God does.”

Then Jesus calls out to the crowds, gathering them in as he explains what it means to be his disciple: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself, take up his 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.”

Now, this statement has often been used to make a few particularly dangerous claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of herself or must give up her creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created her to be. And in this important statement, Jesus is not glorifying or condoning self-mutilation, abuse, injustice, or human suffering.  

Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.

He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us.

We must deny our constant desire to have power over others. We must stop trying to save our egos and pride by striving to always be first: to be the most successful, to have the biggest home, to be the smartest, to be the most faithful. We must give up our need to always be right.

We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.

But the hard reality is that we – as humans – were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.

To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross.

For the early disciples, the cross represented death. And as we now know… What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.

The old has gone, the new has come.

To follow Jesus, we must take up our own cross by following Jesus’ way of the cross.

As we saw while Jesus was wandering for those 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus, himself, had the ability to claim victory over worldly power and glory for his own benefit. But, despite Satan – the Accuser’s – strong persuasive skills, Jesus denied this temptation to have dominion over all. And we see later that as he continues toward the cross, he completely empties himself of all this glory and power, dedicating his life (and death) to one that was not for his own self-gain – but rather to one that was for others.

*****

Our text in Mark for today often reminds me of someone who was really special to me. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.

The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.

And I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

We must follow Jesus toward the cross by walking with others who are suffering and helping them carry their cross when it is too hard to bear. We must – as Barbara Brown Taylor says in the book we are reading as a congregation this Lent – learn to “walk in the dark” and begin to see God’s presence in those times when we – too – feel lost in our own suffering, doubt, fear, and failure.

But the thing is, when we travel this journey with our crosses on our backs, like Peter, we will continue to be mess-ups… No matter how much we give up to follow Jesus; no matter how far on the inner-circle we may think we are; no matter how often we go to worship on Sundays, pray throughout the week, read Scripture, volunteer, stand up for justice: like Peter – we will mess up over and over and over again.

But this is exactly why we cannot skip over the cross. Because we need the cross. Because we cannot save ourselves. Because we need our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer to rescue us.

So, no matter how much we may relate to Peter as we hear this difficult call to discipleship… No matter how much we may want this whole Gospel to be about us… How much we may want God to be in our own image… Or how much we may want to save ourselves and avoid the cross…

Let us deny our old selves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on this way.

Let us learn to let go. And to let God.