Sunday, March 08, 2009

Today's Sermon: Mark 8:31-38

How many people here have worked in technology businesses? Software engineering? Government contractors? High-tech manufacturing?

And how many of you have worked in start-up businesses?

An interesting world, isn’t it?

I’ve been associated with six high-tech startup businesses. In two, I was one of the founders. In the others, I was an early-stage employee, paid more in stock that we hoped would someday be valuable than in real dollars.

In each case where I was an employee, the companies were led by charismatic visionaries.

These were men with big ideas. Our job was to implement those big ideas. Both the blessing and the curse of those leaders was what Alan Greenspan used to refer to as “irrational exuberance.” They believed, with great fervor, that their idea was the best, that this company could make millions of dollars, that the market would adore us and our product. We, as mere employees, would worry about the promises the visionary leader had made to investors, to potential customers, to us. We were the ones who would actually deliver the product, and we suspected how hard that task would be.

So when I hear this gospel story today, with a powerful and charismatic Jesus who suddenly starts talking about things that make the disciples distinctly uncomfortable, I know exactly what Peter is talking about when he starts to rebuke Jesus. I can imagine what he is saying in that rebuke: “Wait a minute, Lord. Don’t talk like that. You’re scaring all the people away. You’re making promises that frighten us, all this talk about how you’re going to suffer and die and rise again.” Peter, a pragmatic and rational fisherman, thinks his leader has gone a little crazy, and wants to talk him off the proverbial ledge.

Peter, after all, has just answered that question that Jesus asked him last week: “Who do you say that I am?” And he’s answered it correctly. “You are the Messiah.” That’s a remarkable exchange, because generally, in the gospel of Mark, the disciples are slow learners who don’t answer any question correctly. Jesus regularly gets impatient with their inability to understand what he has been saying. And here, suddenly Peter gets it right, but he’s only the prize student for a few moments, because when Jesus starts to talk about what will happen to him, and Peter says, “Boss, stop, you’re scaring the guys,” he gets the dunce cap. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
That’s harsh. He’s telling Peter that he is not only wrong, he’s wicked. He’s a tempter, trying to get Jesus to do something bad.

But wait! There’s more! Jesus isn’t done saying scary things. He starts to tell the disciples what it really means to follow him. It is not only Jesus who will suffer in this work, they will, too. The work is a cross that they must bear. They must deny themselves.

The cost of discipleship. It is high. It is frightening.

But it is not without its reward: if you lose your life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel, you will save it. It is not about this world, it is about being with God the Father in the heavenly kingdom. The glory isn’t here. It’s in another place, another time beyond time, and it is a glory that must be earned.

Peter got it right – this is the Messiah. But the Messiah, the Chosen, the Anointed one isn’t an earthly king, rescuing the people of Israel from their miserable life under the thumb of the Roman Empire and the Jewish representatives of that empire in Jerusalem.

No, Jesus is offering different, something much more… but it comes at a price. Here’s the hard lesson: there is glory to be gained, there is eternal life, there is that wonderful heavenly banquet. But, here, now, there is only the road to the Cross, because that’s the road of following Christ.

Do you wonder what that means, that road to the Cross? Do the stories of Jesus’ disciples in the gospel seem so alien, so different, that you can’t imagine what discipleship looks like? This is a road that many of us are walking on right now.

If you’ve lost your job and are struggling to find another, and you have an encouraging conversation with another person who’s in the same boat, you’re a disciple on the road to the Cross.

If you’ve received a diagnosis that means difficult and frightening treatment, and you keep praying not only for yourself but for all who suffer from illnesses, you’re a disciple on the road to the Cross.

If your child is failing in school, and you don’t know what to do, and you lovingly encourage your child even though you’re tempted to yell at him, you’re a disciple on the road to the Cross.

If you look at your savings and realize you may never be able to retire, and you send money to a charity that helps those with even less than you, you’re a disciple on the road to the Cross.

If someone you love is dying, and you give them the gift of companionship as well as your prayers, you’re a disciple on the road to the Cross.

As Jesus’ messiahship required that he die for us before he was raised in glory, our discipleship requires that we do the hard work of following, of serving, of living in an imperfect and sometimes painful world, before we are rewarded in the heavenly kingdom.

And that is hard work. It would be easier if Jesus only required that we believe in Him. But our belief must be made visible in what we do. It must be made visible in all that we do.

There’s a wonderful hymn that talks about the work that lies ahead for those of us who want to follow Jesus: Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be, take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me. This is the message we hear in this gospel. If we want to follow Jesus, we’ve got to lift up that cross. Why? The last verse of the hymn gives us the same reason we heard in the gospel: For only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.

Yes, we get that now. But the carrying of a cross is a hard thing. Our arms get tired, the palms of our hands get sweaty and blistered. Our back hurts. How can we do this work of discipleship? The answer is hidden in the middle verse of the hymn: Take up your cross, let not its weight fill your weak spirit with alarm; his strength shall bear your spirit up, and brace your heart and nerve your arm.

I think we forget sometimes, when we’re walking the hard road of discipleship, that we are not alone. Jesus walks before us on the road. We follow him. His broad shoulders block the wind, and shade us from the sun. He helps us even as he carries his own crushingly heavy cross to Calvary.

So on this second Sunday of our Lenten journey, we stop, catch our breath, hoist the cross on our shoulder again, and resume walking. Being a good person doesn’t guarantee us an easy life; it’s just the opposite. It guarantees us a hard life, because being a Christian in this world is a daily challenge, and following what Christ told us to do will cause some to question our sanity or our motives. But in that work, on that journey, we will see glimmers of the glory that Jesus promises, not in this world but the next.

What Jesus tells us is neither irrational, nor exuberant, unlike the founders of the high-tech start-ups I worked with. It is honest, and the promise of the reward at the end is infinitely better than stock options…especially in today’s market. So it is worth the work, worth the pain, the blistered hands and tired backs….and we sing what we know is true: take up the cross, and follow Christ, nor think till death to lay it down; for only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.


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