March 4, 2012
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
The Promise of Discipleship
March 4, 2012
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
I walked into an old brownstone apartment building in Adam’s Morgan. The paint was peeling, the ceiling was stained, and the people who pointed me down to the basement did not smile. It was June 2002, my first day as a volunteer at a camp for at-risk children. The program director sat down with me and explained, “Whatever you do, don’t make promises you can’t keep. At the end of the summer, don’t say you’ll write to the children or they’ll expect a letter every week. Don’t say you’ll come back to visit twice a month. Begin with once a month and see how that goes. You can always add on. Whatever you promise, they’ll remember and count on it.”
We often define ourselves by the smaller promises we make and break on a daily basis. We rarely think about such promises. We make them out of a desire to be more than we are, to be able to do more than we can, or to get a certain result. “I’ll play with you in five minutes if you will just let me finish what I’m working on.” “I’ll be available any time you need me.” Or as with St. Peter: “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (14:29). We are in love with ideas of ourselves: the most loyal friend, the one more committed and dedicated than all the rest, the best parent; the one able to do the most for other people. A friend of mine calls this behavior “Runnin’ for governor.”—promising more than we are and killing ourselves to live up to what we’ve promised. Today’s gospel blows such notions of ourselves out of the water.
Jesus’ disciples are on a high: They have just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. You can see their minds spinning: “With Jesus, we’ll be able to leap the temple in a single bound. With Jesus, we’ll be able to free the people. With Jesus, we can beat back our oppressors. We will be superheroes.”
Jesus brings the party to an abrupt halt. He has no interest in grand statements or inflated self-images. He has no illusions about where he is heading or about the people who follow him. He makes no empty promises; he accepts none from others. He calls his disciples and the crowds over to him so that they can hear every word: “If any want to become my followers, let them 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.” When I read these words this week, my heart sank. More work? More slogging through each day with heavy burdens? What about that passage from Matthew, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”? So which is it? Take up your cross or my burden is light?
Jesus is a straight-shooter. He tells us up front: “My way is no easier than any other way through life. The journey is difficult no matter what. There is no way around hurt, suffering and death. The only way past it is to go through it. So give up the dream of Super-Disciple and take up your cross.” Jesus insists, “If you follow me, your journey will not be in vain. My way leads to life. My way allows you to emerge with your self intact, to come out on the other side with integrity and grace. Oddly, giving up the dream of who you think you are, of what you think you are owed, of what you think is yours, will lighten your load. If you are willing to lose yourself and follow me, you’ll find yourself, your very life in the process.”
Make no mistake: “A cross is something you don’t want: an illness, a responsibility you can’t get rid of, a disaster you must deal with” (Phyllis Hiers, “Interview,” March 1, 2012). Jesus didn’t want his cross, but he took it, trusting that God would lead him back into life. He had no “martyr-complex” in the modern sense. He did not try to do more than he could. He took time out to pray when these was more to do than he could possible do justice to. He did not seek out suffering. He simply refused to compromise who he was or the good news when pressured and intimidated. He redefined his family as those who do God’s will. He continued to eat with sinners and tax collectors. He continued to tell people to give away their wealth to help others with disproportionate burdens. He continued to break the letter of the law to heal people, to do good on the Sabbath. When the time finally came for Jesus to go to the cross, Mark doesn’t pretend that Jesus knew for sure how God would bring life out of it. Things were pretty bleak in the end. It looked as if everything Jesus had said and done was in vain. Jesus had told his disciples to leave everything to follow him. Instead, they left everything to run away. Jesus felt abandoned, alone, thirsty, and wretched.
But Jesus knew something about God’s promises. God does not promise power, wealth, exemption from bad things happening. God does not make his promises to impress or overreach; he makes his promises to bring his people back into life. God doesn’t offer timelines or detailed plans for how he’ll bring what he promises about. He simply follows through in his own time in ways better than we could ever ask or imagine. Jesus, like Abraham before him, was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised,” despite all evidence to the contrary. Paul writes, “Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old) or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Yet having Superfaith is not a prerequisite to being people of the promise. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brings us the good news that God’s promises do not depend on the strength of our faith. Even when our faith falters, Gods’ faithfulness does not. God fulfills his promises in spite of our weakness, in spite of whether or not we are convinced that he can do what he has promised.
I hope that we will take this passage from today’s gospel with us on our journey through Lent. “If any want to be my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.” May we not hear these words as an invitation to promise more than we can perform. May we not hear them as a challenge to give more than we have and to let others take advantage of us. May we hear these words as an invitation to give Jesus ourselves; to follow Jesus, one step at a time; to walk with him and with each other through whatever challenges life brings us. Following Jesus helps us confront head-on what is ours to take on, what is not. What is God’s. It shapes us into people of integrity, into people of the promise. We base our lives not on what we can do, but on whom we can trust. God promises to bring us through the journey with integrity and grace, with ourselves intact, with our life restored in the end. That’s a promise to remember and count on.