February 25, 2018 Sermon

Second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018 Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                    Scripture: Mark 8:31-38


“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30


Your Cross


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us to become better and better followers of Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


If we wanted to make a quick assessment of American culture, indeed ourselves, who we are and what we value, we may have no further to look than good TV commercials.


Some of you will remember back in the 1970s,  that Burger King had a series of successful TV and radio commercials based on the phrase “Have it your way.” A song that was part of those commercials had a line that said, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Have it your way at Burger King ….”  Likewise, Outback’s Steakhouse used to boast, “No rules, just right” in its commercial.  Were they advocating anarchy or chaos, I asked myself?  Wendy’s had its own commercial of a similar theme.  A hunched-over, grey-haired, little old lady walks up to the counter demanding, “Where’s the beef?”


In our modern American society the “have it your way” trend keeps getting bigger and bigger. Many restaurants let you have it your way. Huge numbers of businesses strive to personalize their service to suit our needs and wishes. Online sellers like Amazon and others take it even further: Order your purchases with every detail (including when it’s delivered) personalized for you. Have it your way!

It is amusing to consider that when Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” into the United States Declaration of Independence he undoubtedly did not realize that he was laying the foundation for a marketing campaigning for centuries yet to come. Did TJ know that he would one day be selling hamburgers?


When we talk about having it our way, what we really are talking about is entitlement.  Everyone is entitled, right? Everyone should get what he, she, or it wants, right?  Shouldn’t you and I get what we want?  We are entitled right?  It is the American Dream right—unbridled consumption, having it all, doing it all, and being it all? Go for the gusto.


Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried the following article, entitled “How to Raise More Grateful Children.”  This sentence caught might attention.  “Every generation seems to complain that children “these days” are so much more entitled and ungrateful than in years past. This time, they might be right. In today’s selfie culture, which often rewards bragging and arrogance over kindness and humility, many people are noticing a drop-off in everyday expressions of gratitude.”


From where might this “have your way,” entitlement attitude have come? That question has sort of been answered, but here is more.

Last September Jonathan Sacks, a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician wrote an article entitled “Cultural Climate Change.”  Here is some of what he said. “In the 18th century came the secularization (drawing away from a religious orientation) of power, in two great revolutions.  There was the French in 1789 and, before that, the American in 1776. The 18th century saw for the first time the separation of religion and power.  In the United States that became known as separation of church and state.


Beginning in the 1960s, we saw the secularisation of morality, as the West broke free from its traditional Judaeo-Christian values, especially in respect to the sanctity of life (abortion) and the sanctity of marriage (divorce).  Having it your way began to apply not only to food choice, but to the life of a fetus and to the duration of a marriage. Because of this western secularization part of the assumption has been that if any religion is to survive in the modern world, then it has to accommodate and adjust to the wider society, what it wants to have its way.


Today, however, says the Rabbi, the opposite is the case. For the last half-century, it has been conservative churches and Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, who have put the brake on having it your way, that have been growing faster than liberal ones. In Islam, it is the radical forms of Islamism that are flourishing, while the more moderate forms are in decline. In each case, what we are seeing, and what we haven’t seen for four centuries, is not religion as accommodation (having it your way), but religion as resistance.


It’s not religion making its peace with the world, but religion opposing the world, challenging the world, which always wants it its way. These are not small developments. Half of the world is getting less religious. Half of the world is getting more religious and the tension between them is growing day by day. That is a cultural climate change and it’s the biggest thing to happen, certainly in the West, since the great wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Today, we begin the second Sunday in Lent.  You might have noticed by now that Lent as a season is distinctive in that it encourages us to resist our natural inclinations. Giving up chocolate, certain foods or taking time to pray or read the Bible all kick at our natural inclination of having it our way, as the Burger King commercial put it.  We chaff at any form of self-denial (not having it our way), as obesity swells and deaths from overdoses rise.


In today’s gospel from St. Mark Jesus addresses this very question of having it our way.  He tells the disciples that:  “(He) must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  As we heard, Peter, wanting to have it his way, objects, even presuming to rebuke Jesus for such a notion that He must die. To our shock and dismay, Jesus calls Peter the devil (talk about demonizing).  “Get behind me, Satan,” He says to Peter.  “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on (having it your way).”  Peter, of course, thought he was protecting Jesus.  This disagreement presented a teaching moment for Jesus—one that sounds strangely like the season of Lent, strangely like those conservative religious movements that are flourishing. Indeed, Jesus’ teaching signals a cultural climate change like no other.


Jesus tells the crowd along with His disciples that: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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.”  Jesus’ logic confounds not only the crowd and His disciples, but us as well.  Losing your life for Jesus will save it.  Can this be true?  Sounds suspicious, doesn’t it?  Besides, where is having it your way found in His words?  Where’s the gusto?  Can losing one’s life for Jesus really save it?


Recently, Emily and I received a newsletter from The Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders, otherwise known as SAMS.  We were astonished to see who some of these missionaries are.  They were young families with small children, babies, toddlers, and older.  Where were they serving as missionaries?  Chile, Ecuador, Cambodia, Indonesia, Uganda, Egypt, Madagascar, Zambia to mention but a few countries. Can we imagine giving up the “having it your way” American way of life to be missionaries in such places?  Would this really feel like saving our lives?


This past Friday, February 23, was the feast day of Polycarp, the long ago bishop of Smyrna. On that day 155 AD he was martyred. Reportedly a disciple of the Apostle John, at age 86 he was taken to be burned at the stake. “You try to frighten me with fire that burns for an hour and forget the fire of hell that never burns out,” he said. The flames, legend says, would not touch him, and when he was run through with a sword, his blood put the fire out (see issue 27: Persecution in the Early Church).


Polycarp’s example, true or not, is probably not what Jesus had in mind when He said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  Still, it gives us pause to wonder.  What does Jesus mean, especially when He says, “take up your cross and follow me”?  Indeed, what is this cross of ours?  Do we all have one?


At first blush, some of us might say our cross is our mother-in-law.  Others might say one’s spouse, the ole ball and chain.  Still others might say my cross is my job.  Perhaps, our cross is a parent or a child.  Whatever we may identify as our cross, it is synonymous with that which burdens us or causes us to suffer.  We identify our cross as something outside of ourselves.  To continue with our ongoing theme, our cross is something or someone which keeps us from having it our way.  Let’s look at this more closely.


It has often been said that the Christianity is a religion of the book; that is the Bible.  While knowing the Bible certainly has its value, more importantly the Christian faith is a matter of the heart.  Of course, we would probably readily accede that, but do we embrace that?  A change of heart is not easy process if process is the right word. When we look into the mirror of our personhood, who we are, what or who do we see?  What are we like, and of course be honest?  That is the tough part—being honest.


Visiting a modern art museum, a lady turned to an attendant standing nearby.  “This,” she said, “I suppose, this is one of those hideous representations you call modern art?” “No, Madam,” replied the attendant. “That one’s called a mirror.”


The reason we have trouble being honest with ourselves is that if we really acknowledged ourselves for who we are, well, we might not like ourselves too much.  This, though  is not to say we should dislike ourselves, rather it is to acknowledge that not only can we be judgmental toward others, but toward ourselves as well.


When Jesus speaks of our cross, meaning our own individual crosses, the nature of that cross between one person and the next may vary because it has to do with having it our way. What I consider to be having it my way will in all likelihood differ from your understanding of having it your way.  Of course, marriage can often be the perfect forum for this difference in having it one’s way.  The wife wants to go out to dinner.  The husband wants to stay at home and watch the ball game.


Some of this, perhaps most, has to do with our upbringing, as our parents intentionally or unintentionally instill in us our identity, meaning who we are and what we want (having it our way).  The so-call deadly sins may have actually been taught to us, though certainly not labeled as such.


When Jesus speaks of saving one’s self, He is directly addressing the matter of having it our way.  We glean a better understanding of what He means by saving one’s self if instead we use the more contemporary term—self-preservation. The term self-preservation applies on several fronts.  There is certainly the matter of our physical well-being or safety.  There are also our emotional and spiritual well-beings.  On all three of these fronts we might do just about anything to save ourselves, so that we might continue to have it our way.  Jesus though tells us that in having this attitude of self-protection we have got it backwards, seriously backwards.  How is that, we want to know.


You see, our cross is really that within us, meaning that which is within us wanting its way that prevents us from entering into God’s peace, love, and joy.  Our cross also prevents or makes it difficult for us to follow Jesus, meaning loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.  Our cross is not that which is outside of us that causes us to suffer—like a job, a relationship, or financial difficulties, but that which is within us which causes us to suffer when a job is lost, a relationship fails, or finances fall short.  And, my guess is that on some level we already know that what Jesus is telling us is true, even without Him being in the equation, necessarily.  Those who lose their life, let go of having it their way, will save it.  Where might we have experienced this?


Think of those times where you have tried to get something done.  You’ve tried and tried and tried, but nothing changes.  It may even have been within the context of a marriage.  For years you may have been working on some aspect of your marriage, but nothing has changed.  It has been a difficult cross to bear, if you will.  Then one day you say to yourself, “Okay, I am letting go of this. You may even have said to God, “I can’t do this anymore.  I am letting it, meaning having it my way, go to you God.  It is yours.”  Tell me.  What has been the result?   Change, right.  It may not have been exactly what you wanted, but somehow by letting it go, dying to self if you will, liberated you, giving you new life and not death, contrary to expectations.  And, this can be more than just some change in attitude. Circumstances in our lives can even change when we let go, die to self.


Are we then to believe that Jesus is telling us to give up ever having it our way—total self-denial, never thinking of ourselves and what we want?  No, we are not.  What we want and what Jesus wants, God wants, are not necessarily at odds with one another, though they may be.   Rather, Jesus is addressing our priorities, and telling us that if we wish to be His followers, then we may not get to have it our way all the time—that hamburger, that job, that whatever, but if we lose having it our way for His sake and for the sake of the gospel, we will save our lives beyond anything we might have imagined, even beyond, in His words, gaining the whole world.  Remember how Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness by telling Him, “All these things will I give You. If You fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9).  Jesus’ teachings are grounded not only in scripture (the Old Testament), but His own personal experience.


The bottom line of what Jesus is telling us this morning is that in being His disciples we are to trust, to have faith that even if we are not having it our way, we are not to despair or lose hope.  Jesus is the god/man of miracles, and He is working them out in our own lives if we would just not insist upon having our way.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.