Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Hardest Choice
Mk. 8:31-38[1]
I would venture to say that all of us have some experience with selfishness. I think we could all easily call to mind several people we know who are completely absorbed with their own opinions, their own feelings, their own wants, and their own significance in the grand scheme of things. We know them because it’s hard to be around them for very long without wanting to somehow escape from the encounter! In the 1980’s, culture analysts spoke of those who came of age at that time as the “me generation.” But it seems to me that there have been plenty of “me” people in every generation.[2]
Of course, part of the problem with selfishness is that we tend to identify it most readily in others. It’s very difficult to see our own selfishness—in fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible. Most of us can be completely oblivious to the ways in which we ourselves are absorbed in our own opinions, our own feelings, our own wants, and our own significance in the grand scheme of things. We just don’t notice it, because it’s about us. But make no mistake—all of us have plenty of experience with selfishness—our own selfishness!
I think that’s why our gospel lesson for today is particularly difficult for us to hear. Jesus has announced to his disciples that his commitment to the justice, peace and freedom of God’s kingdom means that he must go to Jerusalem to die. And then he proceeds to tell them that if they want to be his disciples, they must deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow him (Mk. 8:34). Despite what many may think about this, the kind of self-denial that Jesus calls us to practice has nothing to do with denying ourselves something we like during Lent. It’s not about giving up meat or chocolate for 6 weeks. It goes way beyond that! Jesus calls us to let go our own self-interest.[3] This is something most of us find very difficult to do, if we even try it at all! In our self-oriented and self-absorbed world, I think he might has well have said we have to give up all our worldly goods![4] It seems like something that is not merely the hardest of choices, but rather it is an impossible choice. It is, I think, one of the greatest obstacles to faith, to experiencing the life and love God offers us all.
Well, again I think we can take Jesus as an example to help us out with this. His commitment to God’s justice, peace and freedom in this world was so complete that he literally gave up his life for it. I think one of the reasons why the early Christians cherished this very challenging teaching of Jesus is because they literally faced the same fate.[5] The persecution they endured for their faith in many cases put them in a place where they had to choose between their faith and their lives. And when the time came, many of them chose to go to their deaths for the sake of the life and love God had poured into them through their faith in Jesus.
But in our culture, it would seem that nobody is going to kill us for our faith. So what does this text mean for us today? Well, I think whatever else it might mean, it certainly relates to giving up our own self-interest.[6] It’s a matter of getting beyond our own selfishness and learning to truly love the people around us—all people, even those we might not normally think very highly of.
I think it also means getting free from the small box we trap ourselves in when “I” is the center of our universe. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he talked about trying to save your life and losing it (Mk. 8:35-37). He said that in fact the only way to truly live is to give yourself away for the sake of others. This is a principle that many of the world’s religious traditions echo. When we get trapped in the prison of our own interest, our own wants, or what “I” deserve, it becomes a place that robs us of life itself.[7] We only truly discover the life and love that God has to offer us when we let go all the things we cling to so tightly in that small place of “I” and open ourselves to the people around us in compassion, understanding, and love. Only then can we open ourselves enough to receive the life and the love that God wants to give each of us every day.
Last week we talked about how we must be willing to utter the hardest words, “It’s my fault” in order to repent and begin to open ourselves to the life and love of God that is all around us. This week, it seems that we’re faced with the hardest of choices—letting go of our natural selfishness in order to open ourselves to others in compassion ! It really is the only way to open ourselves to the joy of knowing how much God loves us and how much we can love those around us. It may be a difficult choice, even the hardest of choices, but because it is the path to a life that is free and joyful, it is a choice that is also very appealing.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/4/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3, where he talks about our culture as an increasingly “first-person-singular world” in which “I” is the dominant factor.
[3] Cf. David Garland, Mark, 333; quoting Ernest Best, Following Jesus, 37.
[4] Cf. Lk. 14:33, where Jesus says just that: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”!
[5] Cf. Harold W. Attridge and Adela Y. Collins, Mark, 408, where they suggest that the call to self-denial to take up a cross points to the likelihood of persecution in the community Mark was addressing.
[6] It’s very difficult to define “self-denial” in our day. John Calvin, in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7, defines it in terms of recognizing that we are not our own, we belong to God. Garland, in Mark, 327 says that it means learning to say “not my will but thine be done.”
[7] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, where he defines this kind of living in terms of being “caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification,” and people who “love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their will.”
[8] Cf. Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in P. Schaff (ed.), The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, I:6, 408, where he says this may be the hardest of choices, but because Jesus promises rest to those who follow him, it is also an easy choice.

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