DENY SELF . . . TAKE UP YOUR CROSS . . . AND FOLLOW

Sermon offered Sunday, August 28, 2011 at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church, Ft. Myers Beach, Florida

Proper 17, Year A:
Exodus 3:1-15;
 Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

First of all — thanks so much for the invitation to be here this morning.  As you’ve heard, I’m a seminarian.  I’ll be starting my third and last year of school (at GTS in NYC) .  I’ll be heading back to New York City next Thursday, assuming the subway trains are running again by that time and they have the streets mopped up!  (Hurricane Irene).

When Fr. Don asked me to come speak with you, he suggested that I might talk a little bit about seminary.  So as we consider the gospel reading for the next few minutes, I’m going to end with a few personal reflections.   As we look at today’s reading, I invite you to let your imagination pull you into the gospel scene.  As you think about the story, you might ask:  Is there some person, or some viewpoint, or some words in the story that jump out?  – words or feelings or personalities that particularly grab your attention.  re there words that seem to be saying something directly to you?  Or is there a particular person that you identify with?  Basically there are three players in this story:  Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the disciples.  Here’s how the story goes – first some background and then the story itself.  Try putting yourself into the action.

This story comes immediately after the one we heard last week where Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter was the star of the show when he declared that Jesus is the Messiah – the Son of God.  When Peter named Jesus’ identity, Jesus named Peter’s identity – He named Peter the Rock – the building block on which Jesus would build his Church.  Do you have a sense of how Peter must be feeling about now?  On a high?  Approved?  Secure and in control?

Now we come to a major turning point in Matthew’s gospel.  Up to this point the disciples have had front row seats to observe, experience – to soak up what Jesus’ has been doing:  teaching, healing the sick – you know the stories.  Jesus has been modeling the life of the coming kingdom of God.

But now Jesus begins to show his disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah – and it’s is something totally unimaginable to human ways of thinking.  Jesus reveals that He must go the Jerusalem where he will suffer and die – AND on the third day he will be raised up.  I wonder if, with the shock of the “suffer and die” part, the disciples even heard the part about resurrection.

This teaching doesn’t sit well with Peter, especially at this point, right after the “high” of being named the Rock.  Feeling secure, powerful and approved, Peter challenges this game plan – he suggests that Jesus really shouldn’t have to die.  Peter seems to want to protect Jesus.  What Peter doesn’t realize is that he’s challenging God’s plan for human salvation. Peter’s suggestion didn’t go over too well!

This part of the story always leaves me feeling sorry for Peter – I mean: Give him a break!  He’s only trying to be supportive –do the right thing.  After all, it really must have sounded totally absurd to Peter that anything bad, anything demeaning would happen to Jesus the Messiah — let alone physical harm – DEATH!   So, give Peter a break!  But instead – Whammy!  Jesus calls Peter an agent of Satan himself.  Instead of the Rock on which the church will be built, Peter is suddenly the stumbling block– he’s getting in the way!  From Rock to stumbling block – from “holder of the keys” to the “mouthpiece of Satan!”

But for Jesus at this point – the human side of Jesus – Peter vividly reminds him of that direct encounter he’d had with Satan in the desert after his baptism – when Satan tried to sidetrack him with the 3 worldly temptations – the deep-seated human desires for security, power and approval.

Security, power and approval – money and control – fame and fortune – the very things that the world extols – the very measuring sticks for human success:  the human need for security, power and approval are the very things that we must deny in order to follow Jesus.

Jesus said:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  With this teaching Jesus’ makes it clear that His Way of humble servant-hood and His Way of self-denial — through death and the Way of the Cross – these are the destiny of his true followers as well.

I’m sure you all, in one way or another, have faced the challenge to deny self and embrace the cross in order to come to a new life, a new spiritual plane.  Sometimes the Way appears before us clearly, sometimes more obscurely.  Actually life seems to be an ongoing series of these challenges, ongoing conversion. Imaginative thinkers envision this ongoing spiritual journey as a spiral path.

More tangibly, we might want to ask the question “What does it mean to deny self, take up your cross and follow Jesus?”  I think in the end that’s a question everyone must seek to answer for himself.

Here’s where I’d like to share with you some personal reflections about the road that has taken me to seminary – how Jesus’ path of denial – and taking up the cross and following – seems to have imposed itself on my life.  This observation comes in hind sight.  I can see more clearly from this end.  Often along the way, visibility was not so clear, decisions were not so absolute.  Usually it required taking one small step at a time.  This in itself was a kind of self-denial, letting go of control, faith in the direction I was headed.  There were – there are — no guarantees that the final outcome will be what I might have envisioned along the way.

For me, however, the commitment to this journey also involved self-denial in the sense that there was never the possibility, even a consideration, of going back.  I continue to experience this as a gift, not a limitation or restriction.

The source of my desire to follow Jesus – my call to discipleship – was a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, followed by an ongoing walk with Him as my sole life partner.  I’d been away from the church for nearly thirty years, and the first summons to follow Jesus’ Way was to enter a period of dedicated prayer and reconnection, a quiet period of discovery: a chance to begin to know myself in relationship with God as my Maker, my Lover, and my Keeper – knowing myself in relationship with Christian community – and knowing myself in relationship with creation as a whole.  A strong spiritual pull to surrender and dedication and what felt like a natural attraction to the contemplative life of prayer and worship led me to try out a vocation as an Episcopal nun.  This step required what I thought was self-denial – the commitment to monastic vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, stability – the intentional giving up of money and possessions, giving up self-choice in relationships and life-style.

Actually I did experience a freedom in the monastic life that seemed to say that this vocation was authentic.  But I was also aware that self-denial is much broader and deeper than this.  Looking back, the time in the monastery was a gift – it was a precious time of reorientation and spiritual growth.  But after seven months I left the monastery as I began to sense that God was calling me to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ more actively: to serve, to evangelize, to imitate the whole example of Christ.  In hind sight this feels like a call to follow, a call away from a place of security into the risk of discipleship, a call to move from receiver to doer.

When I found myself drawn to ordained ministry, it felt like a risk to let my heart and mind even consider the priesthood. I questioned myself: Was the attraction coming from my own overly ambitious ego, or was it God driven?  At the same time, like Moses, I doubted whether anyone would listen to me and didn’t consider myself “eloquent” enough.  Like Jeremiah I hesitated because I didn’t know how to speak in front of people, and I was only a child in the Church, especially in my understanding of Holy Scripture.  And I knew I still had some life issues to clear up – just as Isaiah did before he answered God’s call.  On occasion, I even joined Sarah when she said “God, aren’t we getting a little old for this kind of thing?”

All these issues needed to come to the light.  And coming to grips with them led me from prayerful self-denial, straight through the cross – to freedom and answering the call to discipleship.

Jesus said:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

How are you walking the path of self-denial and the cross?  What’s the story of your call to discipleship?  I’d love to hear about it (at coffee hour)!

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