Mark 8: 31-38
Lent 2 / Year B
Jesus said, “If you want to become my follower, you must learn how to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus then said, “If you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you want to lose your life for my sake and for sake of the gospel you will find it.”
These two statements comprise what for Jesus is the fundamental key to a life of fulfillment, purpose, and joy. For him, nothing short of this vision will satisfy, nothing less will endure. But the teachings themselves are not self-evident. To use a buzz-phrase (which I don’t like to do) each needs to be ‘unpacked’ in order to understand better what Jesus is saying.
Let’s start with “If you want to save your life you will lose it.” Human beings do not come into this world ready to hit the ground running. We are classified as an altricial species. Unlike precocial and superprecocial species, we require care and nurture for some time after our birth, unlike say, the blue wildebeest which can stand within six minutes of being born, walk within thirty minutes, and can outrun a hyena by day two. We are born less mature than this, and, as a result, in our very early years finely hone our skills at being self-centered and selfish. We learn to demand food, comfort, and attention from others in order to survive. It serves us well in our early years, but according to Jesus we will spend a lifetime learning how to turn this off and turn it around. Once we are able to do for ourselves, left unchecked, neediness morphs into greediness. “If you live for yourself alone you will lose your life.”
Nothing does in self-centeredness faster than having a baby. I have known only a few parents who were able to bend an infant to their will. The rest of us succumb and the majority of us do so quite willingly. We learn deep in our hearts there are other people who matter to us more than we matter to ourselves. And we learn the more we focus on others, the more we give, and the more we sacrifice, the larger our heart becomes; the larger our world becomes. It is one of life’s great paradoxes: the more you let go, the more you receive; the more you focus on loving others the more love will come your way; the more you die to self the more alive you will be.
Bill Gates has a new book out, and thus is making the rounds of TV talk shows. This past week Stephen Colbert asked him about what it is like to be so wealthy. Gates replied, “Well, there is a responsibility to give that money back in a smart way.” “Not everybody feels that way,” Colbert responded. Gates said, “It is gratifying that the dream of software I had basically came true. And now I get to give it away.” Colbert pressed him about what it is like to be one of the richest people in the world. Gates noted, “Someday I will give enough money away so I won’t be on that list.” Colbert then offered to help Gates with this project. Bill Gates gets it. You can have all the money in the world (living for self) and yet be impoverished or you can live for others and discover incredible riches not earnable in the marketplace.
Think about the famous people who learned how to live for something bigger than themselves: Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa. Each person heroically changed the world by letting go of self and living for others. You and I may not be called or positioned to do what they did, but our willingness to undertake this transformation (to be born again for the service of others) is just as critical to the people in our lives.
If any of our children are listening, I want to say something to you I wish I had known when I was your age. If you have brothers or sisters (as I did growing up), family life can become very competitive. You want your way. Your siblings each want their ways. Your parents have things they want to do or have to get done. Living for yourself alone looks like insisting on your getting your own way… all the time. This may not make sense, but it is true… the more you fight for your own way and the more you win, the smaller and less rewarding your life will become. The more you let go of what you want so that your brothers, sisters, and parents have a chance to get what they want, the bigger your world will become.
Before going off to do what you want to do, what would it happen if you said to your mom, “Is there anything I can do for you?” If you are the oldest, it can be especially powerful to say to a younger sib, “What is something you would like us to do together?” When you really want to go to Chick-fil-a and your brother really, really wants to go to Cookout, you can say, “It’s OK with me if my brother gets what he wants. I’ll find something on the menu I like.” And if you are the brother you can say, “Thank you for agreeing to go to Cookout. Next time you get to choose.”
You see, the thing about love in a family is this: it is not a fixed amount. It is not like you have to fight for every single scrape you can find because there is only so much and there won’t be anymore. In fact, if you look at family life like this, the love available for all actually shrinks. This is what happens when you live selfishly. There will be less love for everyone in your family, including you. But when you begin to care about the other people in your family, the amount of love within your family grows and grows. The more you live for others, the more love will be available for everyone… including you. The same is true of your friendship circles and your classroom.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?” The imagery of a person carrying a cross is obscure in our own time, limited perhaps just to the Passion Story. But in Jesus’ day it was a common experience. The Romans executed hundreds if not thousands of people each year; crucifixion being their most prevalent method. Like Jesus, most people who were crucified were tortured first and then forced to carry the crossbeam to a site where a fixed, vertical post was waiting. To be reared in Jesus’ Palestine was to grow up seeing people carrying their cross to their death.
Today, typically, when we speak about “carrying your cross”, we are referring to some kind of burden in life we have to bear. But when Jesus uses this expression he is thinking more about the course of one’s life. When a person in his day was forced to carry his cross, it meant he carried it all the way to the end of his life; a moment which was imminent. So, pairing his instruction to pick up your cross with lose your life in order to find it, Jesus is saying this is to be who you are and who you are becoming from here on moving forward in life… all the way to the end.
Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is fond of noting the opposite of love is not hate, but rather it is selfishness. Today Jesus invites us to lay aside our selfish desires, to live for others, and to make this be the pattern of our lives moving forward. Even though we may never become one of the great figures in history if we do this, it will have a dramatic impact on how we experience the world. The choice is ours. Either we can clutch fearfully and anxiously to our selfish desires, or we can let go and allow God’s love to live in us as we learn how to live for others.