Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon from March 1, 2015: What do You Have To Lose, Mark 8:31-38... A Sermon on the Occasion of a Baptism and Two New Adult Members Joining the Church
What Do You Have to Lose? Mark 8:31-38
This is a full and wonderful Sunday that I've been looking forward to for a while now. Today, we will be welcoming into covenant membership Mike Davenport and Susan Payne-Nelson. Mike and Susan have been nourished by other church communities, and with the help of no small amount of grace, have found their way into this small church community in Winthrop, Maine. Through a time of discernment and worship with us, they both have felt a call to join with this church in covenant. We will also celebrate the baptism of Eric Nelson. Eric has long known that he is a child of God, but, today has chosen to be baptized as a sign of his dedication to a Christian journey and his dedication to this particular church. I hear that he is already asking when he can be confirmed. I have literally never heard of someone being so excited about their confirmation class. I was never even this excited about confirmation class and I turned out to be a minister.
I do wish kinda wish that I could welcome you into the church with a little cheerier scripture reading. The first one is alright. It is a description of God's covenant with Abram and Sarai. That reading is a wonderful reminder of a vision of God as One who is actively invested in the livelihood of God's people, and of our own responsibility to live into the promises we make with God. This seems like a perfectly appropriate reading on the day when three people are making a new commitment in their Christian journey. The second reading though, the Gospel reading... that story is a bit harder to hear on a day when we plan to be celebrating.
First, Jesus told his followers that the Son of Man will be killed but will rise again, earning a rebuke from Peter. Then, Jesus quickly set Peter and all of the rest of his follower's straight on what exactly it meant to follow him. Jesus told them that they would have to deny themselves and take up their crosses, too. For these people, this was not a welcome message. Many of them hoped that Jesus had come as a warrior leader to defeat Rome. Carrying a cross was not a sign of victory in battle. It was a sign that that you were on your way to your death. Self-denial and death were not what they were looking for in a Messiah. But, death was exactly what Jesus said they must be willing to face if they followed him. When we get new members, we eat cake. When Jesus got new followers, he warned them about self-denial and death. I'm pretty sure that that's not the welcome any of us had in mind.
There are some interpretations of these verses that have helped create a world where too many people have been taught to be ashamed of themselves and to deny the value of their lived experiences. I don't think that kind of interpretation is what we need today, especially in light of our reading from Genesis. God looked at the particular experiences of Abram and Sarai and based the covenant, in part, on addressing the specific needs that arose from their life, namely that they had no children and wanted a child desperately. If God's promises are related to our personal needs, then we can't deny or be ashamed of the things that we need. I don't think God is celebrating suffering for suffering's sake.
The heart of the Gospel requires relationship. Remember that Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbor. When we are asked to deny ourselves, we are asked to deny that our needs always trump the needs of the neighbor. And, if we truly live into that kind of denial, we cannot help but put ourselves at risk. When we deny that our needs are the most important, that our experiences are the only ones that matter, that our experiences of the Divine are the only true ones, we risk having everything we think we know and we think we need challenged. We risk realizing that our own comfortable lifestyle is lacking, and, may, in fact, actually being doing harm. When we are asked to deny ourselves, we may learn that our expectations of God have very little to do with what God will actually do in our lives, and we may have to completely re-evaluate how we understand our calling in this world. When we deny ourselves, we deny that we can follow God alone, without a community to support, guide, and hold us accountable to the promises we have made.
Each of us is asked to take up our cross, to trust in the covenant that God has made with us through Jesus Christ. And, we are pretty much guaranteed that this cross that we carry together is going to be a struggle. We will be afraid. Our core beliefs will be shaken. We'll probably get mad at each other and be tempted to leave rather than continue the struggle of truly following Jesus together. We may even have to face death, knowing that even Jesus himself did not escape the cross. This Gospel work is not easy. But, when we deny ourselves, when we stay in relationship, even as we face death, we can see bits of the Resurrection shining in the shadow of the cross. Those pieces of the resurrection serve as reminders to us that we need God and we need each other. Susan, Eric, and Mike, we're glad you're here. Let us all work to carry this cross together.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.