A Prayer for Memory, Comfort, and Care
This week our Covid-19 death toll in the US topped 500,000. Three wars' worth of deaths.
Today they are in our hearts and on our minds because we know they are not merely statistics. Each one was someone’s child, someone’s friend, someone’s parent or sibling or cousin. Each one was your child. Not a number, but a face and a name and a unique light in our world. In our sorrow, may the memory of each one be a blessing.
Today they are in our hearts and on our minds because we all know what it is to grieve. But we do not grieve without hope. We believe the promise of your word: that weeping may linger for the night but joy comes in the dawn, that you will turn our mourning into dancing, that you will take our sackcloth and instead clothe us in joy. In our grief, may we each be comforted.
Today they are in our hearts and on our minds because each one is a reminder of our own mortality and how fragile our lives here are. It’s humbling to know something small enough to be carried on our breath can so easily and quickly change our lives. Help us not to allow that to make us so afraid that we turn against one another or become callous and careless, but instead help us allow that to remind us how connected we all are and to commit to caring for one another in ways both big and small. In doing so, may we live abundantly. Amen.
Giving Up… Chasing Approval
Mark 8:31-38 [CEB]
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
In the movie, When Harry Met Sally, there’s a point early on in which Harry tells Sally, “When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first, that way in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.” Whenever we approach the gospel, we do so a little like Harry. We’ve read the last page already. We know how the story ends. But knowing how the story ends changes how we read the text. When Jesus begins to teach his disciples that the Human One must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by those in authority, and be killed, and after three days rise again, we are not shocked. It’s what we expect to hear.
As you know from a couple of weeks ago, this text comes just before the transfiguration, and it comes just after a series of events in the life of Jesus’s ministry. Earlier in chapter 8, Jesus has been busy feeding 4000 people with seven loaves of bread, healing a blind man, and teaching. Just before our passage today, Jesus pulls his disciples aside to ask them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, of course, is quick to answer: “You are the Christ.” He gets it. And, he doesn’t get it.
Which is a relief, for us, isn’t it? Peter has been following Jesus for three years. He’s witnessed firsthand as Jesus fed the multitudes, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He’s learned directly from Jesus’s mouth about how they should live and what they can do to prepare the way for God’s coming kingdom. They’ve shared meals and laughter and fellowship and hardship together. And even after being so close, Peter hasn’t quite managed to wrap his head around everything Jesus is trying to tell them. No wonder we struggle with the same thing.
Peter gets it right that Jesus is the Christ. He’s right in his conviction that Jesus is going to be victorious and God’s kingdom will come, but he doesn’t get what that’s going to look like or how all of it is going to happen. And even though we’ve read the last page, a lot of the time, we don’t get it either. Sometimes even though we’ve read the gospel so many times, we still fall into the pattern of thinking that the way to bring about God’s kingdom is through wielding might and power and popularity instead of by offering others grace, nourishment, healing, and self-giving love.
In the very next chapter, after everything Jesus has told them here, Jesus’s disciples will still spend the entire walk from Galilee to Capernaum arguing about which one of them is the greatest. After all, that’s why we really want a God who will rule with might and power and popularity: because we want our little share of it too. We, like the disciples, want to be the greatest, and the world will tell us that we should be. There are all kinds of motivational cliches that tell us we should be better, faster, stronger, wealthier, and accepted.
But instead of telling us to win friends and influence people, Jesus tells us to give up. He says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” For many of us, the image of taking up our crosses and losing our lives may stir up images of the martyrs—those Christians whose faith led them to physical death. Certainly, that would be the case for many of Jesus’s early followers. But if we limit it to that narrow definition—the willingness to lay down our physical lives for our faith—we can wind up letting ourselves off the hook. After all, it’s highly unlikely any of us will face that kind of persecution. It’s easy to believe that we might be willing to do so if asked, while we are secure in the knowledge that we won’t have to make that decision.
Most of us aren’t afraid that we will be killed for the good news. However, most of us do live in fear. We live in fear of rejection or judgment or powerlessness. And so all too often we lose our lives to seeking approval. We do it in a thousand different ways. On the most surface level, we do it by trying to look a certain way: we lose weight or buy certain clothes or have a certain haircut. I bought two new lip glosses just this week, not because I really needed them, but because an author I like recommended them, and she always looks really cute on Instagram. Heels or boots, a hairstyle or a hat, polished nails or dirt under them—we all want to fit in.
The real problem comes not when we give in to looking a certain way, but when we give in to being a certain way. If you’ve ever avoiding letting your emotions out in order to save face, you’ve done it. If you’ve ever held your tongue when someone around you made a joke at someone else’s expense, you’ve done it. If you’ve ever given in to the pressure to avoid making waves, you’ve done it. We’ve all been willing at some time or another to hurt others in order to establish ourselves as part of the in-group: we make fun of people who are different than us or demonize outsiders or assume the worst of people who aren’t “one of us.” And I don’t say that with judgment for anyone, because I’m as guilty of that as I am of buying trendy lip balm. None of us want to sit alone in the cafeteria of life.
We all want to be liked and noticed and approved of. We all want to fit in. In fact, we want it so badly that all too often, we are willing to trade our lives for it. This word “life” that we read here in Mark 8 is actually the Greek word psyche. There are two other Greek words we see used in the New Testament to mean “life.” Zōē, which is the word usually used to talk about eternal life, or life as the opposite of death, and bios, which is used to talk about physical existence, including a person’s livelihood. But psyche—from which we get our word psychology—is more personal. It’s your life. In other places throughout the New Testament, psyche almost always gets translated as soul. It’s your personality and selfhood.
So who are you? What do you think makes you who you are? Often, when we are asked to answer that question, we defer to the things we do. We might mention careers we’ve held or hobbies we’ve enjoyed or volunteer opportunities we’ve signed up for or even the kind of exercise we engage in. Or we might mention things we’ve accomplished: degrees we’ve earned, positions in the community we’ve held, successes we had. But if all those things were stripped away, what of you is left? Who are you when you are sick or weak or injured? Who are you when you are made vulnerable by love or by grief? Your psyche is about what makes you unique and distinct and you underneath all of that.
And yet all too often we are willing to sacrifice the core of who we in exchange for approval. “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their selves?” In other words, why would you sell who you are, piece by piece, in exchange for success or popularity or power? There are so many things more worthy of our time and energy, if only we can learn to think God’s thoughts instead of human ones. Jesus goes on to say, “But all who lose their selves because of me and because of the good news will save them.”
It all sounds a little contradictory on the surface. Lose yourself to save yourself? The truth is that if we devote ourselves to seeking approval and trying to fit in and vying for earthly power, we will wind up losing who we are. But if we are willing to give up our individual desires to take a place in God’s Kingdom, we will find ourselves. The call to take up our crosses and lose our lives doesn’t sound like good news at first, but it is the good news of freedom.
We are free to give up living only for ourselves so that we can instead live abundantly. We are free to give up our selfishness, our fear of rejection, and our never-ending chase for popularity so that we can gain ourselves. We are free to lose who we think we should be in order to save who we were created to be. And when we are able to give up chasing approval, we find ourselves able to be in true relationship in God’s beloved community.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Jesus guarantees that it will a struggle. Fear and doubt will creep in. We'll be tempted to break relationship instead of bearing one another’s burdens. We will decide we’d rather go our own way than follow. But if in those moments we can say no to ourselves and stay in relationship, we will see the light of hope even in the shadow of the cross. After all, we’ve read the last page. We know how it ends. Instead of chasing everyone else’s approval, may that knowledge give us the freedom to relax into the love of God, so that we might be ready to offer it to others in turn.