How Do We Do This?
Dorothy Churn LaPenta
First and Franklin Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2021
2nd Sunday in Lent
Psalm 22: 23-31
How Do We Do This?
Whenever I have the opportunity to teach a confirmation class, I always begin with a scripture verse from the prophesy of Isaiah that explains the vast wingspan of God’s hope and love.
The Lord will heal. On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, all a blessing in the midst of the earth whom the Lord of hosts has blessed saying, “Blessed be Egypt, my people and Assyria, the work of my hands and Israel, my heritage.
Well, they’re teenagers and they just look at me like, “What is she talking about and would someone please bring her into the 21st century?”
Probably Egypt, Assyria and Israel do not hold a lot of meaning for the kiddos. So, I tell them to take out those three places and put in modern day countries that you think will never be united, where the chances of a lasting alliance being formed are few to none. You can also put names of groups of people: Democrats, Republicans, Independents. You can replace Egypt, Assyria and Israel with names of friends and family who have engaged in a combination of combat and estrangement ever since you’ve known them.
Yes, today is different from Isaiah’s time and place. It’s different geographically, geopolitically, and different in almost every way. But that’s not the point. The point is God’s vision given through this prophet; a vision for hope that replaces imperialistic warfare with highways of blessed relationship.
“For God so loved the world” (John 3: 16) THE WORLD! That’s big! Not for God so loved the church or Christians or any particular country or group of people. THE WORLD!
And we best make this humbly foundational, a core belief, remembering it always when we are tempted to think that we know who God’s favorite children are!
For God so loved the WORLD!
But in this world, we claim and seek to practice the Christian faith. How do we do this?
It’s an appropriate question especially in the season of Lent.
I am certain that if this were a dialogue sermon, all of you would be able to give language to what your faith means to you; how you came to it, how you practice it, how you grow in it.
I would treasure being able to listen to you.
But I know there are times when all of us struggle with how to do faith. Was Jesus serious when he said, “Love your enemies”? What is “peace on earth, good will to all people,” other than a beautiful phrase? How in the world does faith’s relevance hold up in time of horrific loss and heartbreak, hateful rhetoric and action, humans vying for power over other humans, god-like technology that knows how to easily persuade and lord over us.
How do we do this?
Jesus was a very good teacher and one of his lessons is given to us today in Mark’s Gospel that’s helpful and instructive in how we do this.
Sometimes like teenagers in a confirmation class, we read scripture and think, “What’s he talking about? Where’s the relevance? What does all of this this mean IRL-in real time?
Rowan Williams in his book “Being A Christian” said that the Christian life is a listening life. We expect to be spoken to by God, and the Bible is one of the territories in which Christians expect to hear God speaking. This does not mean that God loves everything that’s in the Bible nor would God call everything in the Bible good. Some things are hideously at odds with God. But God speaks to us through the Scriptures; law, poetry, history, narrative, polemic, visions. We just have to be willing to dive right in.
So, let’s do that for a few minutes.
Peter who was present with Jesus in this passage wasn’t at all enthusiastic or understanding Jesus’ words. He’s appalled when Jesus starts talking about suffering, rejection and killing. This is terrible for public relations and not a bright future for Jesus’ followers.
But then comes the lesson from Jesus. “Well, those who want to be my followers must deny themselves and take up their cross.” That doesn’t allay Peter’s anxiety and even we become uncertain about continuing this class.
First of all, deny yourself? The Greek word for denial means to disown, renounce a claim, have nothing to do with. So does self-denial mean that we should have nothing to do with ourselves, disown ourselves? If that’s what it means, we are all likely having second thoughts about following Jesus.
Truth be told, these verses from the eighth chapter of Mark have on occasions been misinterpreted and mishandled in three dangerous and damaging ways.
- It’s been used to keep folk in their place as others dominate. “A woman’s place is in the home you know.” “We were good to our slaves even though it was necessary to separate families. They should be thankful that we gave them work.” “You know it’s really better for the mentally ill to live apart from society. They just can’t handle social connections.” “And the Bible is clear. It says right there that we should deny ourselves. People can’t always have what they want.”
- These verses have been used for materialistic shaming. “Hmm, I see you went to Home Depot for yet another garden tool. I’ve seen your garage. It’s full of garden tools.” “You mean you go to Starbucks every day before your shift in the hospital emergency room. That must get expensive.” “Your house is nice, but do you really need this much space.” “You know, God, some people just don’t understand about denying themselves.”
- These verses have been used for psychological shaming. “Honey, I know that you think you are called by God to be a minister, but the Bible clearly states that women can’t. Denying yourself will bring you closer to Jesus so let’s just say a prayer to hear what God is really saying to you.” “Oh, you’re gay! Well, you don’t have to be. I know a good conversion therapist. And even Jesus said that we have to deny ourselves. You’ll be closer to God.”
Dangerous! Damaging! Misinterpreted! Mishandled! And by the way, notice that in these three debacles of this passage, there is no self-reflection, only finger pointing at others.
Jesus did not come to shame and diminish. He came to redeem and fulfill humanity that we might be our truest selves with all the life-giving possibilities.
So, what are we hearing when Jesus instructs, “To become my followers, let them deny themselves.”
What this means is that we must rearrange the relationship we have with ourselves so that we allow Jesus to be our Lord because we so often want to be our own god. Do we receive God as God, our Lord, or do we just call upon God when it’s convenient?
Do we clothe ourselves in defiance: “I’m in charge of me! I don’t need anyone, but people need me. I am strong on my own and I will show that to the world!”
We have all done this at times, but when it becomes our life script, we know what happens to those who think they their own god. They become the center of the universe, a demagogue detached from reality and full of delusions. They are never to be challenged, but the real tragedy is that they can never be comforted because love gets locked out. To receive grace would be to admit vulnerability.
Even those, who in their honesty, are not certain about their belief in God often acknowledge that there is something beyond just themselves that’s at work in the world. Maybe they call it community, brotherhood, sisterhood, compassion. God is not so much concerned about what it is called as to whether our relationship to what is beyond ourselves is acknowledged.
But WE call ourselves Christians in the world.
So, how do we do this?
If Jesus is to be our Lord, we will be challenged. I always know to raise a red flag when that still small voice within begins to sound too much like me. There are times when I get it right. But even in these times that still small voice is different from mine. It stretches me, nudges me, kicks me out of my comfort zone. It’s different than only being in conversation with myself. As infuriatingly demanding as this relationship with Jesus can be at times, it is also one in which the forgiveness is way beyond what I can grant to myself and when I am feeling so unlovable, it’s this relationship that relentlessly continues to call me “Beloved.”
It’s the relationship that guarantees that justice and truth will never be factored out of anything, but neither will hope.
The late Rachel Held Evans in her book, “Searching For Sunday” writes, “God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life. If you want to be in on God’s business, be prepared to follow God to some rock bottom, scorched earth, dead on arrival corners of the world including those corners in your own heart because that is where God gardens.”
Which brings us to Jesus’ second point in this lesson for those who would call themselves followers is to “Take up your cross and follow me.”
The cross bearing to which Jesus refers does not define the ill- fated circumstances we might find ourselves in at the moment. “That teenager of mine, she is my cross to bear.” “I have to accept my medical condition. It’s my cross to bear.” Now, to be clear, medical conditions, treatments, life adjustments, raising children are indeed heavy at times and realities which need to be sincerely and compassionately addressed. We are in God’s care at all times.
But this in not what Jesus was instructing when he said, “Take up your cross.”
The cross that we bear is the cross of doing God’s will, not allowing ourselves to be diverted from God’s mission of righteousness, justice and truth. Where is God’s will at work to make right issues of racial inequality, economic injustice, climate exploitation, poverty. Where is God’s will in loving our neighbor as ourselves? And what does all this look like in real time because these are just some of the crosses we are asked to bear when we call ourselves Christians.
In other words, “How do we do this?”
Dr. Robert Creech in his book, “Family Systems and Congregational Life” writes about Dr. Dallas Willard who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He led the way in exploration of Christian spiritual formation. He worked a lot with spiritual directors.
He introduced a model called “The Golden Triangle of Christian Spiritual Formation.” At the top of the triangle is the Holy Spirit, the presence that is within us, but also beyond us.
In one of the corners of the triangle are our spiritual practices. There are many of them; prayer, worship, reading the Bible, feeding the hungry, fasting, walking in nature, sheltering the homeless. Spiritual practices are both contemplative and active. The important thing is to know what ours are and engage in them consistently, to practice the practices, believing that they bring us into a closer relationship with our God.
But that’s not all, in the other angle there are the mere events of each day as dramatic or undramatic as they are; work, school, neighborhoods, partisan politics, immigration stories, COVID relief packages, businesses closing, impeachment trials, births, funerals, CDC updates;
the real events of our day.
Connecting the practices that form us spiritually with what’s happening in real time, confessing that we are not our own god, believing and, for sure, hoping for God’s presence and action in all things….. Perhaps, this is how we do this!
How we might live our faith, grow in our faith, understand how it works, see the relevance of it all as well as the mystery, humbly accepting that we don’t have or understand all the pieces to the puzzle of life…… because we are not God.
Willard writes that Christians often ask the wrong question when challenging circumstances arise. They ponder, “What would Jesus do?” and then attempt to somehow imitate at that moment what we think Jesus’ response or behavior might be. He writes that we may as well ask, “What would Beethoven do?” and then sit down and try to play the piano. The better question is, “What did Jesus do before the challenging situation arose?” The Bible is very clear on this. Jesus prayed, retreated, worshipped, ate with people others refused to eat with, recalled the scripture of his own Jewish faith. These practices shaped him, made him equipped to be in deeper relationship with the one he called “Abba.”
Dallas Willard makes it very clear that he does not want us to fall into the trap of thinking that his model of “The Golden Triangle of Spiritual Formation” is something to be accomplished even as we are active participants. It should not fall into the category of merit or achievement or scoring how many spiritual disciplines we practice or how pious we are. He states clearly and is adamant that it is first and foremost God’s grace that brings us closer to God and God’s will.
It’s God’s willingness and desire to be present in our formation if we would just get out of our own way and invite God to be God. Our job is to pay attention, to practice so that we can pay attention and listen with open hearts and minds to a voice beyond our own.
To further explain this, Willard tells this story:
According to legend, one of the ancient desert monks approached the teacher and asked, “Holy One, how do I make myself more enlightened?
The teacher replied, “Hmm! As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
The surprised and slightly irritated monk demanded more from the teacher, “What!? Then tell me what use are these spiritual practices that you so enthusiastically prescribe?”
The teacher responded, “To make sure that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
We practice our faith not to earn God’s favor or get God’s attention. We practice our faith so that we can give attention to God….. in real time.
For God so loved the world that he sent God’s Son to teach how to do this, to live our faith, the one who carried THE CROSS, who was crucified dead and buried and rose on the third day because God said death will not have the final word.
And God sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to be with us forever! This is the Spirit of Truth and you will know it because this Spirit abides in you. Just receive it, listen to it, be in relationship.
Because You see,
With God being God,
We can do this!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
WORKS CITED IN THIS SERMON
Creech, R. Robert. Family Systems and Congregational Life: A Map For Ministry. Baker Academic:Grand Rapids Michigan, 2019, pp. 92-100.
Deibert, Richard. Interpretation Bible Studies: Mark. Geneva Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1999,
Evans, Rachel Held. Searching For Sunday.Nelson Book: Nashville, Tennessee, 2015.
Gench, Roger “Spiritual Friendship” in Presbyterian Outlook. Vol. 203, No. 2, Februaruy 8, 2021.
Meyers, Ched. Binding The Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Orbis Book, Maryknoll, NY:2002, pp. 241-249.
Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark” in New Interpreters Bible. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995, pp.623-629.
Williams, Rowan. Being Christian. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids Michigan, 2014.