Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Sermon

Pentecost 15, Year B
Mark 8:27-38
New Year’s Resolution: Follow Jesus
If you could choose how you spent your summer vacation, and your choice was between, for example ---spending a relaxing time at the beach, or at Disneyland, enjoying the rides, or in Paris or London or even New York City, seeing Broadway shows and meeting friends

OR — you could spend your time painting houses for strangers in 110 degree heat, taking care of children you don’t know, children whose parents might be poor or out of work,
children who might sometimes be troublemakers .... which would you choose?
Which scenario sounds most appealing to you? Which scenario would you expect to be plastered on billboards, "Come away with us", or advertised on TV or radio, "Get your tickets now! They’re running out fast!"
Which scenario sounds most popular, designed to get more people buying plane tickets, getting hotel reservations, and looking forward to the event?
Be honest now.....

You might be intrigued to know that 26 of our high school age young people took the second option, spending a week down in Booneville Arkansas on a mission trip.
For ½ the week, they painted houses and helped the community to get backs on its feet.
For the other ½ the week, they worked with young children at a place called kids club.
They met other young people from other churches, and they got to know some of the people they served, small children and older adults.
I won’t go into more detail today since I know that some of them will be telling you about their experience next Sunday at the adult forum at 10:00.

But I thought about their experience this summer when I first read Jesus’ words to his disciples in today’s gospel lesson:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
Friends, this is NOT a sentence designed to make anyone want to sign up.
It’s not a marketing ploy, designed to make the Christian life look good, or easy, or fun, like a long trip on a cruise.

Yet there you have it, right smack in the middle of the gospel of Mark, and right smack in the middle for a reason, some might say:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
Right before these words, right in the middle of Mark, Jesus is speaking only to his disciples, he’s telling them – for the first time – about what will happen to him because he’s the Messiah.
Because he’s the Messiah, he will suffer, be rejected, be killed.... and rise again.
And this offends them and terrifies them – how can these things be allowed to happen to the anointed one? – and they can’t believe it.
So what does Jesus do next? He calls the crowds together, and he tells everyone what it means to follow him, the one who would be crucified: "Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me."
It’s a little like encouraging people to read the fine print in their contracts when they buy something – in our world, almost no one does that.
"No," they tell us, "Just sign it. You can read it later." And then later you realize what you have gotten yourself into.
So far, Jesus’ followers have been seeing great things: the blind see, the deaf hear, demons are cast out, multitudes are fed: seems good – where can I sign up?
They have heard words of forgiveness, and seen people get up and walk. They’ve seen power.
They’ve seen grace.
They’ve seen love and compassion.
And they are all thinking that he’s something special – maybe not the Messiah, but surely one of the prophets.
And you can all imagine that people are ready to sign on the dotted line.
So why does Jesus tell them what’s in the fine print? Doesn’t he WANT disciples?

This is a turning point, a turning point in Mark’s gospel.
There’s a reason that these words are placed almost perfectly halfway through the gospel.
Jesus is turning toward the cross, toward suffering and death, but he is also turning toward God, and toward true life.
How can this be?
How can both of those things be true?
It goes against everything we think we know.

But that’s what he says: "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."
It’s not popular, and it’s not designed to make anyone want to sign on the dotted line, but it’s the truth.
You might be wondering why today we have balloons and pointy hats and some things that make it look like a New Year’s Eve party.
We like to think of today as a kind of "turning point" – the start of our program year at church, the start of Sunday School teaching, the start of Bible classes and other opportunities to serve and to be involved.
Today we’re issuing a special invitation to you to "Follow Jesus" – It’s as if we are inviting you today on a kind of a mission trip – only you don’t have to go to Booneville, Arkansas.
So today we do want you to sign on the dotted line – whether it’s deciding to come to an adult study, or join a house party, or join the choir, or something else entirely.
Today is a turning point, the beginning of a new year of worship and learning and service, and even though we have the elements of a party and a celebration here today,
we also want you to read the fine print: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
We want to be truthful about what we are all letting ourselves in for as followers of Jesus.
It’s not a trip to Disneyland, but it’s an invitation to a life of service and sacrifice, a life where you will find challenge as well as belonging, pain as well as great love and grace and forgiveness.

A few years ago I heard that there were a number of teenagers who had T-shirts printed up with one word on the front: "Loser."
And on the back of the T-shirt was simply this verse, from Mark 8:35, "those who lose their life.... will save it."
Now I remember high school (dimly), and I can’t think of many things more powerful than wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "loser."
I can’t think of many things more powerful than putting words like this on a T-shirt, because clothes can be such a marker of whether you are "cool" or not.
It reminds me of a story I heard about a popular store for teenagers called Abercrombie and Fitch:
The owner of this store has been vocal about his marketing strategy: He only hires good-looking people, because good-looking people attract good-looking people, and he’s only interested in serving those who are "attractive," or "cool" or "popular. He’s only interested in "winners."
So I can’t think of anything more powerful than letting it be known that you’re a "loser."
Except this: perhaps being willing to stand out in the 110 degree heat, painting houses and fences and doors for "Don" and "Patsy", to find out a little bit about their lives, their struggles, and their hopes.
Except perhaps being willing to play with and teach children and learn about their struggles and hopes.
Except perhaps being willing to take communion to a shut-in, or listen to someone who is grieving,
or reaching out to people in our community who speak a different language or come from a different culture, and learning from them, and listening to their stories. It’s not the cool thing to do.

But it’s part of following Jesus, following Jesus into the world of hurt and struggle.

We don’t necessarily have to travel far when we’re following Jesus.
The young people of our congregation went all the way to Booneville, Arkansas, and they can tell you stories about that.
They can tell you next week about what they learned from being together, from serving together, from the other youth who they met, and from the people they served.
I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you two things I heard that I thought were important:
– one of the young women said, the trip strengthened their faith because they were all working together toward the same thing.
– and another student said that she learned that "helping people feels good", but also that "everyone needs help."
She was right. And you know, you don’t have to travel far to find people who are hurting, people who are struggling, people who are grieving.
You don’t have to travel far to find people who have lost their jobs, who have lost their spouse, who have lost their health insurance, who have lost their memory.
You don’t have to travel far to find people who are at the end of their rope. Sometimes all you have to do is look in the mirror.

Jesus invites us to follow him – and he can’t look away from the fine print, that fine print about a cross, because as it turns out – that’s not the fine print: it’s the main point.
Jesus won’t back down from healing and feeding and forgiving people.

Jesus won’t back down from including people, and Jesus won’t back down from loving people – the hungry and thirsty, the lonely, the losers – people like us.
He won’t back down from loving us – and he asks us not to back down from loving one another, either.

So here’s the pitch, today on rally day: Follow Jesus, and he will take you to where houses need to be painted, where children need to be fed and cared for. He will take you to the place where hands need to be held, and the weak need to be lifted up.
He’ll take you to where people need jobs and healing and dignity and hope.
He’ll take you to places where children need to learn to read. He’ll take you to places where it’s not about you – it’s about your neighbors – those you are traveling with, and those you are serving.

Follow Jesus – and he’ll take you to the cross. That’s where he’s going.
-- the place where he lifts up the brokenhearted, and gives us life – new life.
Happy New Year.


Lindy said...

Wow. I kind of want to write parts of that down and carry it around.

You rock Diane.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

This was the sermon scripture at my church this morning as well. Inspiring.

Rev SS said...

Excellent Rally Day Sermon! (excellent any day sermon) Amen!

Barbara B. said...

Yes, excellent indeed!