Lesson: Mark 8:31-38
“What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”
Marcus Borg tells the story of a three-year-old girl who was the firstborn and only child in her family. Her mother, however, was pregnant, and the little girl was very excited about having a new baby brother or sister. Finally the day arrived when her parents came home from the hospital with a baby boy. A few hours after the baby arrived home, the little girl asked if she could be alone with her new brother in his room, with the door closed. Understandably, her parents were a little uneasy about this, but they wanted to encourage their daughter’s interest in her new sibling. Besides, they had an intercom in the nursery. So they watched her go into the nursery, shut the door behind her, and then raced to their listening post. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”
This story suggests that we come from God and that when we’re very young, we remember this. We remember that we belong to God; that all of us belong to God. But what happens? Well, we grow up. And in the process of growing up, of learning the ways of this world, we forget the One from whom we came and in whom we live. So that by the time we’re ten or twelve or even younger, we’re measuring ourselves against our culture’s standards, “the 3 A’s of appearance, achievement and affluence.” Few of us believe we’re enough – thin enough, rich enough, smart enough, pretty enough, good enough, successful enough – because the messages we get from parents, school, work, even church but most especially the media tell us again and again we’re not.
As a result, most of us fall deeper and deeper into a world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment – of ourselves and others. A number of writers – Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others – call this life the false self. The false self isn’t your bad self; it’s just that it’s the self that doesn’t believe you’re worthy and so keeps you striving to prove you are. And in the process, the true self, the self that remembers our connection to God and each other, the real you, is lost.
Jesus has an answer for this in this morning’s reading. The central theme in Mark’s gospel is “the way.” Mark announces this at the beginning of his gospel: it is about “the way of the Lord.” The way is the story of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Three times in the course of his journey, Jesus speaks of his impending death and resurrection, and each time, he pairs this announcement with a teaching about following him. We read the first one this morning. Jesus concludes by explaining that to follow him means to follow on his path. In your pew Bibles, in the New Revised Standard Version, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Scary, right? Whenever we hit a scary or difficult teaching of Jesus, the best approach is to look at it in the context of his other teachings. Jesus taught about nonviolence, a simple lifestyle, love of the poor, forgiveness, love of enemies, inclusivity, mercy, healing; not seeking status, power, perks and possessions. These teachings tell us that human beings matter to God. That who you are matters to God; who I am matters to God. So “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” can’t be read in a way that devalues human life and well-being, or that’s inconsistent with Jesus’ message of human wholeness and healing. We need to read these words in the light of what Jesus called the two greatest commandments: that we are to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Above all else, Jesus taught, we are to be connected with God and with each other.
Perhaps that’s a good place to start in trying to understand this passage: To deny yourself and to take up your cross must in some way further these two great commandments. To deny ourselves and to take up our crosses must help us, somehow, to choose the connection with God and each other that God chooses.
We get a hint from Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. His disciples weren’t bombarded with 5000 advertising images every day as we are, telling them what they are supposed to look like and drive and wear and eat to be successful or cool or hip or whatever. But they still imagine that the secret to life is strength and power and the 3 A’s, rather than vulnerability and love; rather than connecting with God and each other. And so they interpret Jesus’ miraculous acts as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love. When Jesus lays out for them the inevitable consequences of his path, the predictable outcome of insisting on living in God’s kingdom rather than Caesar’s, the way of love rather than the way of domination, then the disciples, and Peter in particular, throw a fit. Jesus needs to win! Conquer! Defeat! Not be conquered and killed himself. Jesus turns on Peter and accuses him of being the mouthpiece of the dark side. Peter’s way of thinking is the opposite of God’s thinking.
The disciples don’t get it that Jesus is leading them along a way that means giving up winning so that God can win with everybody. And so what Jesus is saying is that they, and we, need to go through some form of death – psychological, spiritual, relational, or physical – in order to loosen our ties to the way of winning, the way of the 3 A’s, the way of disconnection from God and each other.
To “deny yourself” is to embrace the truth that we can’t live in this world, we can’t live our lives, without being connected. And what needs to die in order to connect with God and each other is the false self, so that we can rediscover the true self – which is not, not remotely, the perfect self; it’s just the self that knows we’re all connected and we all belong to God, and that this is the most important fact about any of us.
It is Lent. This work, this dying to the false self to rise to the true self, is a whole lot harder, my friends, than giving up chocolate for 6 weeks. Jesus doesn’t sugar coat this. The images he uses are of sacrifice and death. Change is hard. Becoming aware of whatever it is in us that gets in the way of loving our God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is hard work. As Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.”
Brené Brown tells a story about being asked to speak at a women’s networking lunch, early in her career as an author and social science researcher. She arrived early at the swanky country club where the event was being hosted and introduced herself to the woman in charge. After sizing Brown up for what felt like an eternity, the woman said she was going to introduce Brown and so she needed her bio, the page describing her and her work. Brown handed it over and the woman read it for thirty seconds before she gasped, turned to Brown and peering over her glasses, snapped, “This says you’re a shame researcher. Is that true?”
Brown says all of a sudden she was ten years old and in the principal’s office. “Yes, ma’am,” she confessed. With lips pursed, the woman bit off each word: “Do. You. Study. Anything. Else?” “Yes,” said Brown. “I also study fear and vulnerability.”
Brown says the woman gave some sort of a combination shriek and gasp. “I was told that you collect research on how to be more joyful and how to have more connection and meaning in our lives.” Brown now understood. She tried to explain that she did not study ‘how-to’ be joyful and have more meaning in our lives, but knew a lot about those topics because she studies what gets in the way of joy, meaning and connection. Without responding the woman walked away and left Brown standing there. “Oh the irony,” writes Brown, “of a shame researcher standing in a puddle of ‘I’m not good enough.’”
The woman came back in a few minutes, and looking over the top of Brown’s head, said, “Here’s how this is going to go. Number 1: You’re not to talk about the things that get in the way. You’re going to talk about the how-to part. That’s what people want to hear. People want how-to. Number 2: Do not mention the word shame. People will be eating. Number 3: People want to be comfortable and joyful. That’s all. Keep it joyful and comfortable.”
Brown stood there speechless and the woman said, “Okay?” and before Brown could speak, she answered for her, “Sounds good.” Then, as she started walking away, she turned around and said, “Light and breezy. People like light and breezy.” And just in case Brown wasn’t clear what that meant, the woman spread her fingers far apart and made huge sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate “light” and “breezy.” Brown writes, “picture Margaret Thatcher imitating Bob Fosse.”
Brown said she stood in front of the women’s group, totally paralyzed and repeating different versions of “Joy is good. Happy is so, so good. We should all have meaning.” She said it was a train wreck. But what she figured out was that the country club woman wasn’t out to sabotage her talk. She was speaking a deep truth, which is that our culture doesn’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty how-to list for happiness. Brown writes, “Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but that just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, meaningful life, we must talk about the things that get in the way. … Here’s the bottom line: If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability.”
Jesus is telling Peter and the disciples, and us, that if we are going to live the resurrection life, the new life lived in the kingdom of God, we can’t skip the hard stuff. And in fact, we can’t skip dealing with shame and fear and figuring out how to live vulnerably, because isn’t that what drives us to chase the 3 A’s of appearance, achievement and affluence? Isn’t that what keeps us looking for excuses, caveats, and loopholes when it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t that what causes the amnesia that makes us forget that that we belong to God, and that our neighbors next door and on the other side of the globe belong to God, too? That we are enough, and that they are enough?
It is hard work, but it is holy work and we do not do it alone. Resurrection is always the work of God. God is all about resurrection. Every single day. This Lent here at First Presbyterian Church, we are looking at “daily resurrection.” Daily dying to what does not give life, and daily rising to what does. The dailiness of it fits my experience. Marcus Borg writes, “In the course of a day, I sometimes realize that I have become burdened, and the cause is that I have forgotten God. In the act of remembering God, of reminding myself of the reality of God, I sometimes feel a lightness of being – rising out of my self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement. We are called again and again to come forth from our tombs.”
Jesus promises this is what will save us. This is how we will find ourselves. “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?” The connected you. The you that remembers God. In your pews, on the inside aisle, are paper cups with small stones, enough for at least one for each person in your pew, and a permanent marker. Sometime between now and the time you leave the pew, pass the cups down and take a stone and write on it. Write a word or letter or symbol for the stone you need God to roll away for you to rise to new life as your true self, the self that is connected to God and everyone else. You may take it home, or you might throw it in the stone “river” in the landscaping in front of the church.
On my stone, I think I’ll write “comparison,” or just a C if that’s all there’s room for. But if the stone were big enough, I’d write, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2015 all rights reserved.
 Mark 8:37, Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs Like You’ve Never Read Them Before (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993), pp. 110. Peterson is probably best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, which was written to make the original meaning more understandable and accessible to the modern reader. Peterson explains: “When Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter, the people who received it understood it instantly. When the prophet Isaiah preached a sermon, I can’t imagine that people went to the library to figure it out. That was the basic premise under which I worked. I began with the New Testament in the Greek – a rough and jagged language, not so grammatically clean. I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians.”
 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), pp. 113-114.
 Borg, p. 116.
 Mark 8:34.
 Mark 12:28-31.
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), p. 118.
 Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), p. 4.
 Rohr, p. 62.
 Karoline Lewis, “A Different Kind of Denial,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 74.
 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010), pp. 33-35.
 Brown, pp. 35-36.
 Borg, p. 118.