2 Lent, Year B: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:22-30; Rn 4:13-25; Mk 8:31-38
A sermon preached at St. John’s in Montgomery, AL on March 1, 2015
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
In the 2014 animated movie, The Nut Job, an incorrigible, self-serving squirrel named Surly is transformed from one who would save his life and thus lose it to one who would lose his life and thus save it. Surly is only concerned with himself and having enough nuts to get through the winter. He refuses to help anyone else in Liberty Park, his home, in the communal preparations for the winter resulting in his banishment from the Park. By the end of the movie, Surly has been transformed; he leaps on a log to save his friends, fellow Liberty Park critters, and in a completely selfless act, gives his life for theirs.
Of course, as in all good animated children’s movies, Surly doesn’t actually die in the end and his actions have actually saved the day such that there is a plentiful supply of nuts for all the Park animals for winter and Surly pledges to continue to help collect food and care for the community.
Surly exemplifies what Jesus preaches about to the crowd in this morning’s gospel. Those who would save their life lose it”Surly is only concerned with himself and his ability to survive the winter, yet that causes him to lose his home and the safety and security afforded a squirrel in the park verses living on the streets of the city. And those who would lose their life for the sake of the good news, for the sake of Jesus, would save it”Surly experiences transformation such that he is willing to put his life on the line for others and in so doing discovers that there is something more worthwhile than his own self-centered focus in the world. He discovers that there is a power in being in relationship with others, that one cannot always succeed or even survive on one’s own, and that life can get awfully boring and lonely when its just you and no one else.
Surly’s transformation begins in exile and though its end is an over-sentimentalized version of Hollywood’s happily ever after ending, his transformation is complete when his words reflect his actions, and he knows happiness wrapped up in relationship with the other animals of the Park.
Surly’s transformation reflects that which Jesus calls each of us too. We may not be as concerned with nuts, but we are much more concerned with human things be they possessions, power, and privilege than those things divine. When we pursue human things, when we are more focused on what we can get in this world, be that career advancement, enough nuts to survive the winter, or our next fix, then we have lost focus on those things divine.
Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German theologian during World War II. He could easily have stayed in New York, safe and sound throughout the war, but instead chose to pursue a path that led him back to his home in Germany and ultimately to his death in a Nazi prison camp. Before being arrested, Bonheoffer taught in a seminary that was forced underground. In that time he wrote the book Life Together.
In that book, he outlined his understanding of what it means to set your mind on things divine, pointing us toward an awareness and recognition that we need and desire to be in fellowship with other Christians and that as we are prone to take that fellowship for granted, must continually renew our understanding and awareness of that need.
It is to that end, we send Lay Eucharistic Visitor’s out each week to draw those who cannot be physically present with us into Christian fellowship. Because the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace- that grace has been given us in the person of Jesus Christ and thus Christian community can be nothing more or less than in and through the person of Jesus Christ.
As Christians we no longer live as individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. To set our mind on divine things is to set our mind on Christ, to set our mind on the body of Christ”on how we treat one another, on what we are living for.
For Bonheoffer, for the transformed Surly the Squirrel, the divine things are not the self much less the security of the self. The divine things are bigger than the self. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him. Denial of self and the cross are inextricably linked”we can do neither without the other. When we deny the self”truly deny the self”we choose community over individuality because we deny our own autonomy; we choose relationship over exile because we deny our own self-hood; we choose intimacy over privacy because we deny our own self-importance.
To deny ourselves and take up our cross is to say yes to the invitation of the cross. Not the cross of death and suffering, the cross is more than death and suffering. The cross is God choosing to be in relationship with us. To say yes to the cross is to say yes to connectedness with one another through Christ. No one bears his or her cross alone, not even Jesus.
We are right at the beginnings of Lent, fresh enough into the experience to still be faithful to our Lenten disciplines and far enough in to recognize we still have a long way to go. But we don’t do Lent in a vacuum. Lent is about relationship. Of all the seasons of the church, Lent is the one in which we are willing to put ashes on our forehead in the shape of a cross and go out in public. It is the season when we are most willing to share our particular disciplines as faithful Christians, to mark ourselves as part of Christ’s body, even to strangers.
It is the season of self-denial–be that giving something up or making space to add something in. Lent is a communal season because we give up the self in Lent”we spend more time in relationship with one another at church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons and evenings. So, we make an effort to show up, to deny our self in favor of being with our community focused on growing closer in relationship with Christ.
We deny our individualism to all put ashes on our foreheads and belong to something bigger than we can ever be by ourselves. We discover that the food that gives life is the food offered at the rail”the body and blood of Christ doled out in a communal setting drawing us deeper into Christ and one another as well.
When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, he is not asking us to deny our true selves, but to embrace our true self, the self that needs the other. Jesus is inviting us into greater intimacy through self-denial. Because that is what being human is really all about”belonging, relationship, intimacy. When we deny those things and attempt to be our own person, we simply become self-absorbed, narcissistic and we lose our life because we so desperately cling to an idea of ourselves that cannot be sustained.
The bottom line is that our understanding of who we are is always in response to another’s understanding of who we are. We cannot know ourselves or even become ourselves without others acknowledging who we are.
So to deny yourself and take up your cross is to enter fully into community, recognizing that we cannot exist without one another, we cannot live without one another, we cannot be vital members of a body”much less the body of Christ”without one another. To deny yourself and pick up your cross is to lose your life for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of Jesus.
Quit seeking to rely on yourself alone and begin to seek the help of others. Let go of the selfish desire to gather all the nuts for yourself and instead share what you have with others. Refuse the expectation that we must get ahead in this world all on our own or the temptation to believe that you have all the answers. Instead, the denial of self is the embracing of the truth that you cannot live in this world without being in relationship one with another.