Text: Mark 8: 27-37
It’s not uncommon in our reading of scripture to stumble upon passages that are bewildering. This one from Mark’s Gospel would surely be nominated for MOST PERPLEXING. It shows up right in the very center of Mark’s Gospel and is perhaps Jesus’ most central teaching. Why, we might wonder, if it’s so important -- why would it be so confounding? If you really want people to get it, wouldn’t you make it more accessible? Simpler to understand?
But how do you make accessible something for which we may have no reference points … something that won’t be grasped through reasoning. How do you make understandable something that defies explanation? Which is maybe why Jesus, the teacher, is far more a storyteller than a lecturer. Which is maybe why to learn from him is to follow him … where to go with him is to experience a whole new take on life. It is to taste and see and feel and know things we couldn’t have imagined without undergoing that journey.
“I’ve been at my best when I’m most broken” … I found myself saying to Mary, my spiritual director this past week. I was laughing as I said it because of course it makes no sense … unless you’ve been there, as she has, so she was able to laugh with me. Some of the richest times of my life, the times for which I’m profoundly grateful-- they happened amidst immense sorrow and pathetic weakness. It makes no sense in terms of conventional wisdom, and can never be explained from that vantage point … and yet it’s true!
So maybe that’s the first thing to say about these words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: the words alone won’t bring us to an understanding, but they don’t have to be lost on us.
If we are open, they have a way of pointing to a reality that just might stir a longing in our hearts to taste for ourselves a way that we might never have known awaits us. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.” What if we allowed ourselves to hear these strange words as alerting us to a truth, an experience, we might never have imagined possible?
Because there is so much here, I’m thinking we’ll linger with this same passage for a few weeks, taking a little bit at a time. And for this morning I wonder what if we begin where, in this case, Jesus begins … “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves …”
Denying ourselves … on the surface it sounds like it’s got to do with depriving ourselves -- not just taking our appetites in hand, but cutting ourselves off from the good things in life.
But this is Jesus speaking,
who turned water into wine so the party could go on;
who himself ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners;
who provided food for the multitudes beyond their need;
who set people free to sing and leap and live and love again.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves” … it’s been interpreted to mean my feelings, my well-being, my needs don’t matter. It’s been laid on people to keep them quiet, submissive in abusive relationships … .
But this is Jesus speaking,
who rebuked the disciples for sending the children away
who stopped everything when he heard Bartimeaus crying out from the side of the road;
who sided with the woman who poured out the expensive perfume.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves” …
So what if it’s not about deprivation or putting a lid on what’s true, but something altogether different.
Let’s notice that Jesus doesn’t just say this out of nowhere.
It comes on the heals of that heated exchange between him and Peter. What happened? Jesus dropped this bombshell of an announcement, telling Peter and the others in the plainest language what lies ahead … that he will suffer and be killed, and after three days rise again. So flummoxed by his talk of coming into harm’s way, Peter reacts, reprimands Jesus for talking like this. And then we hear what at first sounds like Jesus over-reacting, when he says back to Peter “get behind me Satan.”
Yet maybe what we’re hearing isn’t Jesus over-reacting at all, but an indication of the intense struggle that’s going on for him in that
moment … how truly tempting it is to give up this way of love in order to avoid the inevitable suffering. In his struggle to stay the course, the last thing he needs is Peter feeding that voice that would talk him out of what he is destined to be about. What he needs are companions who get it …who know that this way of love demands a costly yet life-giving vulnerability.
So it’s then that we hear Jesus say, if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves. I wonder if he isn’t speaking of the self that he himself knows all too well -- that part of us that’s bent on protecting ourselves -- that, if it had its way, would talk us out of being true to who we are as a people made for love.
As I look back, one of my times of deepest regret was when I couldn’t bring myself to go and visit a person dear to my heart who was dying.
I could feel the pressure building … I knew these were his last days … and the voice inside questioned my adequacy … did I really have what it takes? … what could I offer this great man at such a time in his life? … what would there be to say that would be good enough … that wouldn’t make me foolish? I bought it all. I never went. He died. And I lost … and perhaps he did too.
Right now, I know all I had to do was get there … show up … come alongside and be in one another’s company allowing our love to flow. But that doesn’t happen without a vulnerability that risks the possibility of foolishness, of pain, of failure --the vulnerability that allows us to connect with each other … to find ourselves where we already are, on holy ground.
To ‘deny ourselves’ is to say no to that voice that talks us out of being vulnerable. To deny ourselves is to say no to that part of us that would talk us out of being true to who we are as a people made for love.
About a year ago, I think it was, I recall hearing an interview with a man, a botanist, whose specialty is the study of trees … maybe you heard him or heard about him too. And his coming to realize this underground communication that happens between trees in the forest or within a small stand of trees … the sensing of struggle, and the flow of energy, of care, of nourishment, of strength between each other. There, beneath the surface, is this fundamental yet unseen connection.
This is the truth about us too … our seeming separateness is an illusion. On the surface, of course what we see is separation … my skin encloses all the wonder of all that works in me, as yours does you … but what is true is our oneness -- not our sameness -- but our oneness, our God given connection. Coming from and belonging to the Creator of all that is …our dwelling in and the Spirit dwelling in us all … we are one. “We are sustained not by our own protection of our little lives but by the life-giving fountain of grace welling up within us to eternal life, flowing with perfect, infinite compassion”# … even when we fail, even when we die.
To ‘deny ourselves’ is to say no to the illusion of our separateness .. To deny ourselves is to break through the illusion that we don’t need each other, or that we are not enough.
“If any want to become my followers,” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves …” let them say no to that part of ourselves that would talk us out of being true to who we are as a people made for love.
Let’s take some time in the silence
to be in touch with that persistent part of ourselves that is wired for protection, that hates failure, that resists how it is that we need each other … that would hold us back from each other …
Let’s take time to be in touch with that part of ourselves that would talk us out of being true to who we are as a people made for love.
And let us open ourselves to God’s powerful love … God’s forgiving, transforming love
* * * * * * * * *
Let’s sing together this song of assurance -- words in the bulletin
allowing these words to wash over us and draw us into the well-springs of God’s grace.
 # Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Deny Yourself, posted on Unfolding Light,