Rev. Linda Dolby
The Son of man must indeed suffer, be rejected, and be killed. And you, and we all, must deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow where Jesus is leading—straight into suffering, rejection, and execution. This is the way to life. And it is the way of life of those whom Jesus trains to be his disciples.
This is the hardest element of our Lenten journey. Everything in us personally and much within our culture teaches us to fulfill ourselves, stay out of harm’s way, and escape rather than walk into and among folks who are suffering. But Jesus says head straight into all of that. Because that’s where he’s going. Because that is where God’s kingdom is most manifest. And he’s going there not to help us escape it ourselves. But rather to show us the way, so we’ll keep going and show others the way.
Frederick Buechner, the author, once said the Gospel is good news, is bad news, is very good news. Good news: the birth of Christ. Bad news: the crucifixion of Christ. The best news: the resurrection of Christ.
Today’s gospel reminds of the old Jack Benny joke. He tells the story that once he was walking down the street and was suddenly confronted by a robber, pointing a gun at him, saying “Your money or your life.” (Now Jack Benny was widely known as being a tightwad.) Benny waited. The robber said, “Well, what is it?” Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
Which will it be for you – your money or your life? I think that is what is meant by today’s sermon title: “Surrender of Die.” Jesus says, “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.”
Not very good news.
The cross is not just an unfortunate event on a Friday afternoon at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem; it's the way the world welcomed Jesus from day one. Herod tried to kill him when he was yet a wee one in swaddling. From his very first sermon at Nazareth the world was attempting to summon up the courage to render its final verdict upon Jesus' loving reach, "Crucify him!"
Jesus is not remembered because he was born in a stable, had compassion on many hurting people, told some unforgettable stories, and taught noble ideals. The significant thing is that Jesus willingly accepted the destiny toward which his actions drove him, willingly enduring the world's response to its salvation. Arrested as enemy of Caesar, tortured to death as a criminal, Jesus was more than just one more victim of government injustice. He is not just an example that sometimes good can come from bad. Rather, as Paul puts it, on the cross Jesus was Victor: Jesus "disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross."
The cross was the worst form of execution - for the people of Israel and for the Roman Empire as a whole. Indeed it was a social faux pas to mention crosses or crucifixion in the presence of women and children of high social standing.
Yet Christianity, in contrast to many of the other religions of the day, which celebrate the search for beauty, truth, and the good, has, at its center, this most awful symbol of death and disgrace. This must be dealt with - and understood correctly. I say this because with our gold and silver crosses adorning our altars, and worn as jewelry around our necks, some reduce bearing the cross to little more than performing acts of kindness toward other people, or putting up with difficult situations. If this is all we believe about the cross, we risk transforming our faith into a religion that celebrates many good things - but which avoids the difficult truths about life and about faithfulness to God.
When Jesus tells Peter that he is going to die, Peter will not hear it. "That can't happen to you, Lord! Not to YOU!" And Jesus is more stern with Peter in this moment than he is at any other time. Even when Peter returns to the resurrected Christ after having betrayed him three times, Jesus does not chastise him then as he does now. "Get behind me, Satan! Jesus says. "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Peter sees Jesus as a person who must be about his own survival. The most important thing is for Jesus to stay alive. There is nothing more important than preserving his life. What Peter does not understand is that fear and the works of darkness all stem from this crucial understanding that we must preserve ourselves at all costs. Evil tempts us to believe that there is nothing more than this life and that we must do all that we can to preserve our existence. It is the darkness that first and foremost wants us consumed with our own survival. The forces of darkness want us consumed with me, myself, and I and holding tightly to the lie that survival is the most important aspect of life on this earth. This fear is based on the assumption that there is nothing after death and so death must be avoided at all costs. Just keep things the same and everything will be ok. Don't give your life away.
This belief that we must "survive" leads us to live our lives with ourselves at the center. If preserving your life is the most important thing, then one can easily become consumed with what the body or mind need to keep on going. This quickly can morph into self-centeredness. Pleasing the self becomes of the utmost importance. What I like, what I love, what I want to buy or consume or experience becomes essential. Thus begins the never-ending journey of chasing a shadow. Worshipping the self, trying to preserve the self, these efforts are somewhat like a cat that chases its tail. The self has no power at all and the death rate is still 100%.
I heard an interview last week with the actress Jane Seymour. At the end she said, “All that really matters is the love we give away and the difference we make.”
Jesus never promised his people perpetual good health, freedom from all aches and pains, or bypassing of death. Jesus got little of the "good life," nor did he promise us that we, by following him, would do so. Rather, he assured us that he would never allow anything worse to happen to us than happened to him. He promised that the world would also nail us to some "cross," if we followed him.
As Martin Luther King said it, paraphrasing Jesus, "the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear." In our Jesus-induced times of pain, he gives even us innate cowards the courage to take up our cross and follow.
Jesus’ words call us to recognize and release whatever hinders us from full relationships with God and one another. Self-denial challenges us to know the stumbling blocks within our own selves. It beckons us to open ourselves to the one who is the source and creator of our deepest self. And self-denial compels us to ask ourselves, “What are the actions, what is the way of being, that will leave the greatest amount of room for God’s love, grace, and compassion to move in and through me?”
Jesus is clear. To be his disciples, to enter the Kingdom of God, we must deny our selves and pick up our crosses - and follow him. So what is the cross we are called to bear?
Our crosses are our own - they are shaped specially for us by our own life issues and by the call of God upon our lives. Our cross is like Christ's in the sense that it involves offering ourselves to God and our neighbors in complete and total love and obedience to God, no matter where that love and obedience may take us. It may involve us in less than physically dying for Christ. It will involve us in far more than simply performing acts of kindness toward other people, or putting up with difficult situations.
Our motives for doing things will not be - how will this help me - but instead how will it serve Christ? How will it serve God? I am struck by verse 35 in today's gospel reading. Those words that say: "Those who save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for Christ's sake, and for the sake of good news, will save it."
People do risk their lives for others. Another Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.” Most of us, for example, would risk our lives to save our children. God is no different.
Rebecca had a baby girl just as the Nazis invaded Poland. As the soldiers marched into Warsaw, she clutched her baby girl to her chest in desperation. Rebecca was Jewish. Her husband was a professor. They were too smart for their own good and they were reading the signs. She and her family knew that the Nazis hated them.
As tensions arose, Rebecca and her husband began to make plans for her baby girl. Her best friend from grammar school was a Christian. She had recently married and they had not yet had children. Rebecca went by night out of the Jewish ghetto with her baby to visit her friend and to ask her the most important question of her life. "Will you take my baby girl? Will you raise her as your own? I am afraid for my life and the life of my people. I am afraid that she will be taken from me. Will you be her mother?
The conversation lasted long into the night. Her friend did not believe that this was necessary. It was not that she did not want the baby, she did, but she was afraid that Rebecca would later regret her decision. Rebecca was adamant and she finally convinced her friend.
And so, it came to be that a woman handed over her child so that the child might live. Rebecca's baby girl survived the Holocaust disguised as a Christian.
Jesus offers us a model for life. “Don't worship yourself,” he says, “don't spend all your time trying to fix yourself or please yourself or just stay alive but instead, give your life away. Hand it over to God. Lose yourself and you will find yourself. Take up your cross and in following Christ you will find out who you truly are.”
This is really hard to do, to lose yourself, to give your life to God. It is just as hard for us as it was for Rebecca to hand her baby off to another. It goes against all our instincts. But Rebecca did it because she knew that she was - her life was - doomed. It ended in nothing. She knew that the only hope for her daughter was to give her away.
There will come a time when you have tried enough to please yourself. You will realize that there is nothing more that you can buy, nothing more that you can eat and no place that you can travel that will truly fill your soul. These things can be fun but they don't last. Only love lasts and love only happens when we are able to put someone else ahead of ourselves.
So, when you come to that moment when you are ready to hand the baby over, to hand your life over to God, take it in slow steps. Give God some of your time. Give God some of your money. Give God some of your deepest most intimate thoughts and let God fill in the empty spaces. Those who save their lives will lose them, Jesus said, and those who lose their lives will save them. God is love and God will not enter a soul that is full of itself. A teacup full of tea can take no more. If you are full of yourself, God will wait until you can empty yourself and make room. God will wait a long time.
Let us pray:
We pray, O Lord, that you would make us bold in our faith. By our self- forgetting, our self-denial, help us make visible to all our brothers and sisters the reality of your power and care - that power and care that is so often made evident when we confess our weakness - and so often concealed from others when we are strong.
Pentecost Power by Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 2:1-12
Preached @ Trinity UMC, Lafayette on June 4, 2017
Popular preacher and professor, Fred Craddock, tells this story about his experience as a guest lecturer at a West Coast seminary.[i] Just before the first lecture, one of the students stood up and said, "Before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal."
The room grew silent. I was taken aback, [Craddock writes] so I said, "Do you mean to ask if I belong to the Pentecostal Church?"
He said, "No, I mean are you Pentecostal?"
I said, "Are you asking if I am charismatic?"
He said, "I am asking if you are a Pentecostal."
I said, "Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?"
He said, "I want to know if you are Pentecostal."
I said, "I don't know what your question is."
He said, "Obviously, you are not Pentecostal." And he left.
Pentecostal is an interesting adjective. But, just what do we mean when we say that a person or a church is Pentecostal? Is it the name of a denomination? Is it a description for a particular worship style?
Well, Pentecostal is one of those church words often misconstrued. I would rank it with – what I call – the "holy trinity" of misconstrued churchy words. (The other two, by the way, are "saint" and "charismatic.") You see, the adjective "Pentecostal" is inaccurately applied when it is used to describe a denomination or worship style because it is, in fact, descriptive of all churches. A church cannot be a church without being Pentecostal because to understand ourselves as Pentecostal simply means that we link our identity with the event of Pentecost, that day long ago when the Holy Spirit birthed the Church into existence. On Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit breathed life into those first apostles and the Church was born. The Spirit, God’s breath, is always the origin of life. Life is in the breath. When a baby is born, what is that great moment of suspense in the birthing room: it is that moment just before the newborn baby cries. Months down the road, when the parents are wakened in the night – night after night – they will pray that cry to cease. But at the moment of birth, it is music to their ears because the cry is the audible signal of respiration. Life is in the breath.
In each of our biblical creation stories, life begins with God’s breath. In Genesis, chapter 1, life begins when God’s breathe blows over the watery stew of chaos.[ii] In Genesis, chapter 2,[iii] God shapes the man from clay and breathes into his nostrils like some primordial, divine CPR. Life is in the breath; the breath of God’s Spirit.
So again, on Pentecost, that day when the Church will be birthed, God's breath, God's Spirit, blows through the house where the followers of Jesus had huddled together to wait and pray.
It is a packed house, according to Acts. Some 120 people, chapter 1 tells us.[iv] Now the actual historical probability that the early disciples, generally peasants, would have had the resources to rent a piece of real estate large enough to hold 120 people gathered for days doing nothing but waiting and praying is suspect. There is likely some exaggeration here. But the point comes through clearly: those early disciples took seriously their admonishment from the resurrected Jesus that they prepare for the arrival of the Spirit in a very particular way: by being together and being in prayer. Certainly there must have been some coming and going as followers fulfilled other necessary daily duties. But this central location, where prayers were poured out continuously and life was lived together, drew them like a magnet and let me just say, it would have been a bummer to be the dude responsible for the doughnut run who missed out on the action that morning when the long-awaited Spirit showed up with an intensity of cosmic proportions.
Now, before Pentecost became the Church’s birthday, it was a Jewish holiday, the Festival of Weeks. It required faithful Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even at this point in history, Jews were widely dispersed, having settled in places where Hebrew and Aramaic were not the everyday languages. And that is why the Holy Spirit falls upon these disciples causing them to speak in a myriad of languages. It must have been quite a cacophony.
I didn’t grow in tornado territory so, I confess, I still love a mighty wind. Years ago when Britt and I were going through a challenging time in ministry, friends offered us a few days at their cottage at Lakeside, Ohio on Lake Erie. We spent time resting and praying and discerning and our final morning there, the winds were extreme. I went and stood at the shoreline and closed my eyes and listened and felt the power of that wind. I literally opened my mouth and felt as if God was pouring into me.
Gale force wind grabs our attention as it did for those Jerusalem pilgrims on that morning long ago. People stopped and stared and listened to this mighty wind and a bunch of Galilean peasants proclaiming the word of God in a multitude of languages simultaneously. I mean, who wouldn’t stop to check that out? But then the murmurs and mutterings begin to run through the crowd as well: “Who are these people and what’s behind this commotion? Is something wrong with them; are they drunk?” Now captivated by this assortment of languages; it’s a curious crowd and a reversal of Babel. Do you recall that story? Another old story from Genesis.[v] Near the dawn of time when those ancient humans God created decided to see if they could climb up into heaven, a presumptuous plan. So God confused their speech, creating a myriad of languages that caused them all to disperse, to go their separate ways. After all, it’s unsettling when we can’t understand what people are saying around us. Perhaps you’ve had that experience of being on public transit. A group of people are speaking another language. One of them glances your way; someone says something and the others laugh. And you become nervous, paranoid. Are they laughing at you? You slouch down in your seat and pretend to read the paper or something on your smart phone.
We grow uneasy and nervous when we can’t understand one another. Without a common language, how can there be a common life or a common cause... for a community called to live life together, life in common.
On that Pentecost day, those myriad of languages served to unite an enormously diverse crowd; a crowd of thousands, according to Acts.
Today in a world of mass communication, just one tap away from a world wide web of thoughts and ideas and opinions, we still struggle to connect with those down the street and around the world.
Those disciples had a message too important to be lost or misconstrued. So Peter stands before them and puts it into perspective. They are not drunk; they are inspired by a Spirit of a different sort. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on them just as the prophets foretold so that they might proclaim the message of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth, more than a man put to death on a cross; he was God’s Son, who God raised from the dead to be Savior and Lord.[vi]
Pentecost Day; the day the Church was born. God’s breath filled his people and they cried out the gospel proclamation. The breath of God’s Spirit rushed down from the heavens and filled those common peasants with an uncommon power: the power to connect, to proclaim, to forge community in the midst of diversity. Roberto Gomez writes:
By enabling the people present to speak different languages… the Holy Spirit breaks all kinds of barriers, indeed frees the gospel from a particular first-century Galilean rabbi to a universal message of hope and salvation for all people.[vii]
But, I wonder; how well we are doing today... Perhaps we need some fresh wind, some fresh power; that divine CPR so that the message of hope and salvation in Christ might reach others through us. Life is in the breath. So, breathe on us, breath of God. Pentecost was that day when God flooded the hearts and lungs of his people and they cried out giving voice to the gospel.
Rebekah Jordan Gienapp points out that the commonality of that Pentecost day wasn’t about eliminating diversity. She reminds us that: “The particularities of language and culture are preserved in this story, even while they cease to be barriers between peoples.”[viii]
I fear we American Christians insulate ourselves. We view our pluralistic world with trepidation. We retreat into our “Church world” where we “practice our faith” by attending lots of church meetings, fretting and wringing our hands over the church’s budget and expenses, evaluating our buildings in light of our own comfort-ability and traditions, and serving the needy with latex-gloved hands.
If I were to ask you to name five friends – not acquaintances, but actual friends – who aren’t Christians, could you do it? According to research, many of us couldn’t. But what if we made some new friends; people who don’t speak our language, so to speak. Carey Nieuwhof writes that most of the interactions we have with non-Christians are “situational and observational rather than truly relational.”[ix] Friends, that Pentecost day long ago, the renewal movement of a Galilean rabbi became a multi-cultural Church through the power and intervention of God’s Spirit. Those disciples, who at the time of their Lord’s passion fled in fear, now become prophets and preachers. Peter who once couldn’t even admit to a servant girl that he was in any way affiliated with Jesus[x] will now stand before a crowd of thousands to preach and the Church is birthed; a Church that, according to the Acts, goes on to shatter one social-cultural barrier after another. A Church that systematically breaks through religious barriers, ethnic barriers, economic barriers, sexual barriers, gender barriers… you name it.[xi]
And it wasn’t easy and, according to Acts, that’s what most of their early Church meetings were about. But they didn’t give up and that’s why we’re all here this morning. And we are called, just as they were, to pray and to welcome the unsettling power of God’s Spirit to grow the Church through us: ordinary people through whom God’s Spirit can achieve extraordinary things. Remember; the life is in the breath. But will we do it? Will we welcome the breath of God’s Spirit pouring down upon us? Will we welcome the Spirit taking hold of our tongues? Will we accept that the Church is God’s gift for people who are very different from us? Will we be willing to “speak another language” and embrace other cultures? It’s not easy; but it is clearly God’s plan and it can be done. Life is in the breath; new life; so breathe on us, breath of God. My friends, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and get ready.
[ii] See Genesis 1:1-3
[iii] See Genesis 2:7
[iv] See Acts 1:14-15
[v] See Genesis, chapter 11
[vi] Peter’s Pentecost sermon is found in Acts 2:14-36
[x] See Luke 22:54-62
[xi] See, for example, Acts 4:32-37; Acts 6:1-6; Acts 8:4-39; and Acts, chapter 10.
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