Dying to Be Free

Mark 8:31-38 and Excerpts from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


Welcome to this second Sunday in Lent!


Now is the time in our worship where we dive deeper into a message from our sacred texts. So, I invite you to take just a few moments to be present, let yourself show up more fully, to let your body take a posture of openness, to notice your breathing… As you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19.


God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.


"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.”


These words from Jesus are something like a Christian version of a koan, which is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.” Like a spiritual brain teaser, interrupting our normal mental map.

Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


We know that in this first century context this was not just a deep spiritual teaching, but a literal warning. If you invest in love, you will suffer. If you create justice with your life, you will struggle. If you follow the Way of Jesus, you will be forced to die small deaths on your way to the big one. These are simply facts.


This could be lost on us at this time in human history, but I believe it has profound wisdom for us, now too.


Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


If you connected last week, you heard that for the season of Lent, we are exploring mental wellness and our theme is Spiritual Practices for Surviving the Wilderness. We started a conversation about shame and we chanted as our spiritual practice. As I shared in my message, shame is the root of many of our ailments and as spiritual beings having a human experience, we know that to be true. One of the powerful takeaways from the sermon talk back time was the need for all of us to tell new stories or as some of us put it, to play new tapes about our lives, as part of unburying and disempowering shame. We talked about how we can be freed from the stories, lies, the recorded tapes in our minds that keep playing. And we can write new scripts. Those old texts infused with shame can be acknowledged and then we can say farewell and play a new tape.


Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


This can be a recipe for transformation that is powerful and like the hurt that can come with physical death, these little deaths also often come with pain too. In this year that has been filled with pain, it gives me comfort to read that Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about pain: the pain of living outside of the grasp of love, of being rejected by his own community, the pain of living with illness or demons, the pain of living without family, the pain of living outside the Temple walls, the pain that would come with going all the way to the cross.


I understand much of Jesus’ ministry to be about transforming pain, mental and physical pain and the pain caused by systemic injustice. It makes me think of the words that we heard from James Baldwin who wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Deny the hate and face the pain, but losing that saves the soul. We die to live. And further Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”


When we face the pain under other feelings, which is like taking off a mask or digging something up, it is also losing what is familiar, even if it was blocking us, blinding us or killing us slowly. It is a space we cannot live and thrive within.


As you heard in the Gospel today, Jesus says that he will suffer, that he will be rejected, that he will be killed for who he is and what he says and who he loves, that he will likely die for this message that all should be free.


But he doesn’t end there. He speaks of being denied and having to deny, he speaks of the suffering of others and his own, he speaks of what will be lost in order to save, but this community, these ideas, this vision will live, if only more of you get it …


But Jesus does not warn that a life of wild love could in fact lead to more pain and end it there. Instead he says, “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.”


And this is true for Peter. Because in this story he is blocked by his own assumptions and preconceived ideas. And in a way in order to understand what was happening, to end up later being the rock of the church, one of the makers of the movement, part of him needed to die, his way of thinking, his sense of what should be, he had to deny his ego.

As W. Hulitt Glower writes, “Peter was blinded by his preconceptions. His cherished convictions about what the Messiah’s agenda must be…How often are we guilty of this? Glower goes on, “Arrogantly, we assume that we know what must be done, so that even a word from Jesus himself cannot dissuade us. Blinded by our prejudices, presuppositions, and preconceptions of the way things must be, we would not be convinced otherwise, even were someone to rise from the dead!”


Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


Perhaps part of what this means for us in this time is that it will be painful to let our own ideas about what is possible die, it can be painful to orient our lives outward, to serve and love others with wild compassion, to live in communion with and for others.


David Rhoads writes that denying ourselves and taking up our crosses and following Jesus all the way really means, “At the most basic level, it means removing oneself from the center of one’s concerns, relinquishing status and power in favor of service to others.” In our dismantling racism work, we are learning that needing to appear good can stop us from doing the good we are called to do. But where we are going asks us this:


Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


Let us not in the words of James Baldwin, “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death,” the big ones and the littles ones. Instead we can deny the need to be right or appear to be, on our way to being and building what is right. We can lose our need to be at the center, to save it and find the Way. We can let the old tapes be shelved and we can play new ones. We can be willing to let these parts of ourselves die in this life in order to be free.

Beloved of God, Deny to gain. Lose to save. Die to live.


Lectio Divina:


"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.”


Silence


"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.”


Silence


"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.”




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