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    Sep 16, 2018

    17th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Mark 8:27-37

    Preacher: The Rev. Greg Farrand

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Detail:

    Take Up Your Cross Sermon

     

    In our Gospel reading, Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. The disciples have spent a lot of time with Jesus, traveling the countryside, camping out, talking around the fire. They have witnessed miracles and been soaking in his teaching.

    And after all of that, Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter, in essence says, “In all I’ve witnessed, you are not just a teacher. You are more than a prophet. You are the Messiah!” It’s a profound moment of divine revelation.

    But the fact that Peter sees the very presence of God in Jesus is not the end, it’s just the beginning. In the next few versus Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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.” In other words, if you see the wisdom, beauty, the very presence of God in Christ, then you are called to follow him. You are called to action. Authentic Christianity, true spirituality is just not some set of doctrine to adhere to, authentic spirituality is a verb. It is action. It is following Jesus.

    One of the great tragedies of the Christian Church in the West is the separation of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is believing the “right” thing.  And orthopraxy means living the “right” way… living and loving from the heart.  Often in the West, we focus all our attention on believing the right thing. The gospel has been reduced to a set of doctrinal positions. If you believe in these things, then you are forgiven of your sins and are going to heaven. The Gospel is reduced to fire insurance from hell. And fire insurance does not transform a life.

    When Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, it is a wonderful, beautiful revelation. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Mission accomplished. You believe the right things about me. Now you’re going to heaven.” No, Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus in essence is saying, when you see the presence of God in me, when you realize who I am, that is not the end, that is the trail head. That is where we start to follow Jesus on his path.

    The Gospel is so much more than mere doctrine, than some intellectual system. It is an invitation to a transformed life. We are invited to follow Jesus on his path. It is interesting to note that the earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians. They were called People of the Way (Acts 9:2). Christianity is a path and practice.

    And Jesus makes it very clear, that following him on his path will not be easy, it will be like volunteering for death. “Take up their cross and follow me.” Remember, that the cross was a device of torture and execution. Jesus is saying, following me will lead to death. You will need to lay down your life. Why would anyone volunteer to follow Jesus down a path that promises death?

    Interestingly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says if you follow me, “you will learn to live freely and lightly” (Mat. 11:30). Well, which is it Jesus? If we follow you will we learn to live freely and lightly or is it like volunteering for death? And the answer is yes.

    Because following Jesus down his path will require us to lay down our life and allow parts of ourselves to die. And in this process, we discover abundant life, true freedom, authentic joy… a life lived freely and fully. Jesus is inviting us to walk the inward journey of faith… and as we follow him, many of the things we looked to that give us life, to give us identity will need to be let go of and that feels like death.

    All of us spend our lives seeking fulfillment, seeking a sense of connection, seeking transcendence. And we often follow the paths our cultural context tells us. We’re told if you have a successful career you will experience wholeness. If you have seven figures in the bank. If you have the right body. If you have the right partner. If you have fame and success. Our ego’s, believing we are separate and isolated, seek to fill the void. And this belief that we are separate has to die. Ken Wilber brilliantly oberves, “Because people want real transcendence above all else, but because they will not except the necessary death of a separate-self sense, they go about seeking transcendence in ways that actually prevent it and force symbolic substitutes. And these substitutes come in all varieties: sex, food, money, fame, knowledge, power - all are ultimately substitute gratifications, simple substitutes for true release in Wholeness.” I love that distinction, “symbolic substitutes.” We look to things to fill us up that never can. Jesus says these symbolic substitutes will have to die in order to experience new life. In order to experience life lived freely and lightly. But often we cling on to them because we think they will fill the void, make us whole. In fact, often times we will not follow Jesus down this path until we’ve been brought to a point of desperation in our lives. I have met with CEO’s and stay at home mom’s and college professors. Each with symbolic substitutes gripped in their hand. The CEO truly believed that when he attained his level of career he would be satisfied. He wasn’t. The mom thought when she had kids she would finally be fulfilled. She wasn’t. The professor attained tenure and was still anxious and sad. Each one said, they had truly believed the path they were on would bring them life and it did not deliver. And often times, before we are willing to follow Jesus down his path, we need to be brought to the end of our rope. To realize the things we cling to for life are actually pulling us underwater.

    They go together, the discovery of the wrong path (the death of a symbolic substitute), and the invitation to freedom and connection. That is why Jesus said famously, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    Blessed are you who are struggling, who no longer experience life from these things that used to satisfy. Blessed are you if you are confused and lonely. Blessed are you if you’re desperate because you may be ready to follow Jesus down his path and allow those symbolic substitutes to die. To let go of that thing you used to cling to for life. Now you can turn your attention, your heart to what will truly satisfy… to abide in the very love and presence of God that is within you.

    As I mentioned a few weeks ago in a sermon, one of my symbolic substitutes for my connection with God is people’s approval. Somehow, growing up, I metabolized the message that if everyone likes me, I will be truly happy and at peace. I have learned over the years to let it go. To trust in my inner sense of identity as God’s beloved and not require the approval of others. But I find when I get tired, I tend to get a little insecure and the siren song of peoples approval gets louder. A week ago we returned from a pilgrimage to Italy. A large group of Holy Trinity folks, about 53 of us followed the Via Francigena… the ancient pilgrimage path to Rome. We hiked over 80 miles and it was an amazing and powerful experience. It was also tiring.

    One day, at the end of the hike, we were to gather at a café. The hotel where we we’re staying sent a minivan that picked up our group 5/6 folks at a time. I was in the very last shuttle and when I arrived at the hotel, it was like walking into a hornet’s nest of activity.

    The hotel didn’t have enough rooms for us so they were doubling up couples… putting four to a room. People were sleeping on pull out sofa’s and cots tucked away in a kitchen.

    Now, we really encourage a pilgrim’s lens, a willingness to welcome everything, but this was over the top. I started to get really upset. This is not what we paid for, this is ridiculous! I argued with the hotel manager to no avail (he didn’t speak English) and found myself fuming. Now, generally, I don’t tend to lose it so I’ve learned to pay attention when I do.

    I sat down and realized the source of my anger and anxiety: I felt that everyone was really upset and disappointed. That this experience would somehow ruin their trip. And as the trip organizer, all of that disappointment, all of that frustration would fall on me. That symbolic substitute of people’s approval was screaming in my ear.

    I heard an internal critic saying, “You’ve blown it! You’ve ruined their pilgrimage. Everyone is angry with you. You’re all alone.”cNow, I know those thoughts and feelings are over the top and irrational but there they were.

    But with the insight, instead of running around trying to apologize and make sure people still liked me (like I would have done in my 20’s and 30’s), I grabbed a plastic chair, went outside, and sat down with a view of the Tuscan countryside. And I started to breathe deeply and said, “God, I surrender all of this into your hands. Open my heart to remember that you are my source of life and security. I commit myself and all of these pilgrims into your hands.” And continued to sit there for about 15 minutes. Soon my blood pressure started to drop and I felt a sense of groundedness slowly return. Instead of looking outward for security, I felt God’s invitation to allow that symbolic substitute of people’s approval to die. And in that space I was set free from pursuing other people to make me feel secure. I was able to actually care for them.

    That process of letting go is not easy. One of my greatest teachers of this skill is my 18 year old son Zack. He is currently a freshman at Appalachian and thriving but when he was in middle school, he had a very hard time. He went from an elementary school where he was popular and had lots of friends to a new school where he didn’t know anyone and the kids had all been together for years. It was a great school but not a good fit for Zack.

    He was bullied some but mainly he said he felt totally alone and ignored… like he didn’t exist. He would try to  connect but each time felt rejected. He slowly withdrew more and more into himself. Beth and I described it as watching his light slowly dim. After about a year and a half, it was clear he was utterly miserable. As a parent, it was incredibly painful to watch. We would try to talk about it, create strategies for dealing with bullies, give him pep talks but it seemed like water off a ducks back. Then one day, Zack and I were in the den watching Kung Fu Panda 2. Now some of you may have seen Kung Fu Panda 1 but didn’t have the commitment to watch the second in the series.

    The basic plot is this goofy Panda Bear named Po becomes a kung-fu master that saves the world. At the end of second movie, the forces of evil look like they are about to win. An army of dark forces is lined up with the new technology of gunpowder weapons.

    On one side stands the Panda alone. On the other is an army. But Po, the panda, grounds himself, and realizes he can’t run away, and can’t fight this army directly. Neither fight nor flight will work. He needs a third way. And in his groundedness, he knows what to do.

    The enemy launches a flaming cannon ball at him and instead of running away or counter attacking he welcomes it. He welcomes the cannon ball with one arm and allows it to flow across his body redirecting the energy, redirecting the trajectory back towards the darkness. All of a sudden, Zack sits up, and with an enthusiasm I had not seen in years he said, “That’s it. I have to kung-fu panda this.” I said, “What are you talking about Z?”

    And this 13 year old says in essence, “When rejection or bullying or loneliness come at me, I have been shutting down or lashing out. And that isn’t helping. I need to welcome it like Kung-Fu Panda and redirect the energy.”

    I thought, who is this kid? I said how are you going to do that. He said, “When I feel anxious or lonely or in pain, I’m going to take a step back and welcome it. Then see what happens inside.” I said, “There is a practice like this in Servant Leadership, its called the ‘welcoming practice.’” And he said, “No Dad! I am Kung-Fu Panda-ing this!”

    “Cool man, you go for it!” And he did. He practiced welcoming the painful emotions and soon they were transformed. He felt a growing sense of groundedness. Soon, it was like watching his light go from dim to bright again.

    He calls it his Kung-Fu Panda philosophy and it is still a daily practice for him. In fact he wrote his college essay on this practice and he continues to Kung-Fu Panda to this day. And so, in Tuscany, when I felt all that anxiety and longing for people’s approval, I went out, sat in that plastic chair, and Kung-Fu Panda’d it. I welcomed the feelings and in that space, surrendered them into God’s hands. And they were transformed into a deep sense of groundedness. It was a real life moment of experiencing Jesus invitation to let go and abide. And these invitations come to all of us everyday. The gentle voice of the Spirit is calling us to walk the path of the inward journey of faith. It is a path of laying down our lives, of allowing our symbolic substitutes to die. And in that space, he brings us to new life. To experience a life lived freely and fully.