by Pastor Leah Rosso
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Mark 8:31-37 March 1, 2015
People often think they’re going to find saints when they read the Bible, and if that’s what they’re looking for, they are probably disappointed. There aren’t very many saints. But there are lots of people living their lives trying to figure out how to follow God. They are imperfect people practicing all the time how to give their lives to the God who loves them.
This morning we have two stories that act like book ends. We have a story of God’s call to Abraham at the beginning of God’s covenant with people, and we have this interaction between Jesus and Peter as Peter tries to figure out how God will continue the covenant through the Messiah.
Interestingly enough, we know very little about Abraham’s younger years. The first time we ever meet him is when he is at least 75 years old. In our passage this morning, he is 99. But no matter how old he is, there is no reference to his past, how long he’s been trying to follow God, why God chose him in particular. There is no mention of whether God has been calling him and Sarah for sixty years now, or just seemed to take an interest in their retirement years. All we know is that God chooses Abraham and Sarah. Chooses them for a wild adventure that no one would’ve believed. God chooses them to be the beginning of the whole nation of chosen people— to be the start of a new creation— a community that will follow God. And sometimes they listen, and a lot of time they don’t; and through it all they have to figure out how to be who they are— not trying to impress God with all of their plans, but opening themselves up to the life that God is offering them. They have to practice letting go- and wow do they practice it a lot. God calls them to leave everything and everyone they know; to start a new life; and to trust that God’s promise of a son to Sarah will come true.
Somehow, although they are like all married couples in that they doubt and get impatient and make their own plans and sometimes miscommunicate with each other and with God, God’s grace works in their life and shapes them and they learn to trust in God’s promises.
Fast forward thousands of years to Peter and Jesus, and we can see the same struggle. Peter has said yes to God. When Jesus called him from his fishing nets and tells him I’m going to make you a fisher of people from now on, Peter responds and quickly falls into the life of a disciple. And yet in this interaction with Jesus, we can see how much Peter’s expectations are skewing his view. Peter has it in his head that since Jesus is the Messiah life is going to get better- you can imagine what expectations he might have now that he’s on the side of the Messiah— he most likely expects that politically his oppressors will be overthrown; that spiritually he will finally get some recognition instead of being down upon; he might even have expectations of financially being okay in the future. So when Jesus says that he’s going to suffer, that he will be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes; that he will be killed— I don’t think Peter even hears the part about rising on the third day. Peter has painted a future in which there is no suffering. So Jesus tells him and the other disciples that those who want their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel, will save them.
Isn’t that the same choice Abraham and Sarah faced? They could’ve said no to God and gone on living their lives. But they chose instead to give up their lives- everything they had known- and follow God for the chance to see what happens when we say yes to the living God. Abraham and Sarah didn’t deny themselves as we usually think of it- it wasn’t a denial of self; but it was a denial of being by themselves. Their faithfulness to follow God propelled them into relationships that made sense of their lives and brought great meaning to who they were- even thousands of years later. *
So what if that’s what Jesus is talking about with us too? These verses have often been construed that we all need to give up ourselves in order to follow God, but when I read Scripture I see God inviting people to use their gifts. I see Jesus inviting people to share what they have— whether it be a stubborn spirit like Peter’s or a loaf of bread like the little boy who had faith in the feeding of the 5,000. Time and again Jesus actually invites people to share what they have to further the Kingdom. So when I read this passage, I hear Jesus inviting us not to deny who we are, but to deny that which gets in the way of living out the Gospel.
Maybe you know someone who has been able to do that. Stina graduated at the top of her class in marine biology. She was planning to go on to get her PhD and move next to the ocean. Instead, through a lot of prayer and the support of family and friends, she went on to Seminary and is a pastor here in Minnesota. Her husband, Chad, however, had the opposite experience. He was finishing his PhD in Christian Education and going through the discernment process of Ordination, when he realized through a lot of prayer and discernment that God could use him best as a lay person and he went back to school to become a computer programmer. The important thing to remember, is that there is no mold you have to fit in to follow Christ. You don’t have to fit the church person type. You don’t have to give up your passions and gifts. You can be a 99 year old Nomad in the desert, or a fishermen in the sea of Galilee; you can be a young woman who’s just going to get a drink one day, or an old woman who has spent her life in the temple. What God wants from you is your trust so that you can embrace God instead of holding so tightly to the life you think you want that you end up losing your life altogether.
When we are able to give up our selfishness and instead live in a place of generosity, than we will know that we’re following Christ. When we are able to let go of our fears and live in a place of grace, than we will know we are following Christ. When we are able to leave behind those things which seem so important to us— a job that we worked all of our lives to get but that is pushing us away from God; or a home that we spent a lot of money building that is keeping us isolated from our neighbors; or an unhealthy relationship that is getting in our way of experiencing the love of Christ. There are all kinds of things that can get in the way of our relationship with God when we allow them to become gods to us.
But when we are willing to practice imperfection, than we have already admitted that we don’t have all of the answers and that we aren’t God. When we are willing to practice imperfection, than we are willing to hold more loosely those things we love the most because they just may be the things we need to let go of. When we are practicing imperfection, naming who we are as children of God and being willing to be real with one another, than we also open ourselves up see where Jesus is calling us to pick up our cross and walk confidently.
You see the cross Jesus is calling us to carry is not all that ails us in life. We will most likely all have to face grief and ill health and tragic circumstances in our lives because that’s just a part of life. What Jesus invites us to, is to partner with him in ministry— to live out our faith in the good times and the bad. To pick up our cross- which is the passion and grace that we alone can carry to further God’s Kingdom in this world- and to follow. Jesus invites us to a life full of meaning and rich with love. Jesus invites us into relationship with one another and with God knowing that it won’t be easy; it won’t be free from suffering; but it will be worth living. When we trust in God’s promises, God’s love, joy, and hope become so deeply rooted in us that we are able to generously give away our lives knowing that by doing so, we will gain them again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
*This idea comes from Karoline Lewis’ writing about the lectionary texts on workingpreacher.org