Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lent II, 8 March 2009

“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.”

May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!

As I have mentioned before, I am the son of a retired Southern Baptist pastor. This means that I practically grew up at church socials, dinner on the grounds Sundays, Homecoming Sundays, and potluck and covered dish suppers held for the sake of having potluck and covered dish suppers. It’s no wonder I wound up here at the Church of the Resurrection.

Now, y’all can lay out a spread here. That is for sure. However, I’m not sure any congregation anywhere can rival the dessert tables laid out at the small southern rural churches of my youth. These tables would be bow-legged with desserts: pies and cakes, cookies and brownies, puddings and jello-molds, all to be topped with one of eight-or-so flavors of home made ice-cream present that day. Whole legions of dentists, doctors, and suppliers of diabetic supplies have made their livings off of Southern Church dessert tables.

My father would often approach the dessert table at one of these social events and loudly pronounce, “Get thee behind my Satan…and push!”

I can not read our Gospel for today and not think of my father making that boisterous pronouncement. Indeed, I believe there might even be an important lesson about the nature of temptation in my father’s exclamation. Indeed temptation is an experience familiar to all of us. Even Jesus Christ himself, as we heard last week, before he even preached a word he was tempted by the devil. Indeed, as a colleague of mine put it recently, orthodox Christianity staunchly insists that where there is temptation the devil, an incarnate evil being is at work.

Now noticing temptation, noticing the work of evil in the world seems like it would be an easy task. But our Gospel passage today reminds us of how difficult it can be to notice temptation. We tend to imagine the devil as a hideous creature revolting in appearance. But today when Peter rebukes Jesus for speaking the truth, Peter is rebuked as Satan. Jesus has just revealed to the disciples what lies ahead for him, and truly what the cost of being his disciple will be for them as well. Peter pulls Jesus aside, and rebukes him. Presumably he tells Jesus, this isn’t the message we need to be saying if we want to keep our membership numbers up. This isn’t the mission statement we agreed upon during the strategic planning session. We need to lay off this suffering business and let people know when we going to kick Rome out of Palestine and usher in the return to the good old days of David’s kingdom. But that is not the path Jesus is on. That is the path of human design, human power, not God’s, not the heavenly path. Jesus is irrevocably pointed to and through the cross. He is steadfastly set on the course that will lead to his death and our salvation. But Peter can’t see it, and filled with the devil Peter tempts Jesus to turn from the path. Peter, the rock that the church would be built upon, the one who a few verses earlier is the first disciple to proclaim Jesus as the messiah, one of the closest disciples to Jesus, maybe even his best friend on earth, stands as an incarnation of evil, possessed by the devil and tempting Jesus away from the path to and through the cross.

Now, it would be easy if the devil was always the most repulsing figure in a room. Temptation would be easy to resist if that were the case. But what about when the devil is attractive; when the temptation is a cup cake not a rice cake. Then temptation becomes much more difficult to resist.

I think some of the strength the devil has upon us when we are presented with an attractive option is our intense grip on our lives. We think, and we are trained by our culture to think, that we are masters of our lives; that we can infinitely customize our experience and control our outcomes. From MYspace to MY yahoo to MY personalized weather updates on MY customized personal computing devices we are conditioned to believe that we can have our way right way. We are taught that we can have our life if we simply decide which color skin to put on our cell phone.
Jesus on the other hand teaches something much different. He teaches that the way to gain our life is to lose our life for his sake and the sake of the gospel. Now that sounds like a dramatic change to me. We already covered the Episcopal resistance to change last week, but let us not think that the urge to stay as we are is limited to Episcopalians, let us not for a moment think we have a corner on stubbornness. It is our very nature to hold on to ourselves to be resistant to lose our lives, our selves, regardless of what we might gain. Now, we all know that we have good stuff and bad stuff as part of our make up. We each possess parts of our character that are righteous and parts that are toxic; parts that are cupcakes and parts that are rice cakes. Jesus calls for our whole selves to be lost, the righteous and the unrighteous, known and unknown, physical, mental, and spiritual; we are to Surrender All to Jesus.

It might first occur that our sins, our brokenness, the rice cakes of our person are the easiest thing to lose to God, while the positive parts, our gifts and talents, are hard to let go. I would argue differently today. Many years ago I got my start in professional ministry as a camp counselor. It was then and there that I began to learn what talents and gifts I possessed. I also learned how rewarding it was to share those gifts and use them for the glory of God. I made some of the best memories, and best friends I will ever had working for God. Applying our talents to the glory of God fills us with a sense of purpose, and the rewards are often obvious.
No, it is our faults that the hardest to lose to God. They are hard to lose to God for at least two reasons. First, who are we without our faults? If we do not have our brokenness, if we don’t have our judgments to tell us who we are better than, if we don’t have our prejudices, our hatreds, our pettiness, our spitefulness, our jealousy and envy then who are we? Who ever would we be if were actually whole?
The other reason it is hard to lose our faults is that we have to look at them. It’s like the weight set in my basement. If I don’t look at it, then I don’t know how many workouts I’ve missed. To lose our faults we must recognize them, name them, and confess them. However, too often my brothers and sisters we stop with the mere lip service of naming our faults. We don’t do the hard work of letting them go.

We often gather around us people that affirm the lip service as enough. We call this gathering church. One of my life long friends says regarding church shopping that we pick our church based on our sins. The denomination or tradition that does not ask us to change the fault we like the most is the one we join. To paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor we are quick to commiserate with others that share our sins, quick to say come hang out with us we have the same problems, but when it comes to the hard work of transformation, to accountability, we are not so quick to act. Twelve step programs teach us that the first step to transformation is admitting that we have a problem, but we should not forget that there are 11 steps that follow. There is more work to be done.

Now, my brothers and sisters, it is easy for me to tell you the first step is admittance. It is easy for me to say that we are all invited to God’s altar to confess our faults and offer our spiritual gifts. I expect that just like every other week when we make the invitation to communion that you’ll come. I expect that just like every other week you’ll bring you whole self to God’s table, your joy and pain, your passion and pleasure, your gifts and your struggles, your cupcakes and your rice cakes. But will we leave it all at the altar today? Will we not pick up our brokenness again and carry it back with us into the world? Will we surrender our suffering at the Lord’s Table today and walk away with only the body and blood of Christ so that we can go into the world and be the body and blood of Christ? Will we take up the cross this day and follow our Lord Jesus? Amen?

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