Playing For Keeps

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Lent2 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-4-12

Children’s Time: Have you ever played a game of marbles? Here are a few I brought from home. The object of the game was to draw a circle on the ground and put your marbles inside. Then you had a shooter marble that you could knock other people’s marbles out of the circle with. Any marble you knock out you put in your pocket and keep going until all your marbles get knocked out. When the last marble is in the circle the winner is the one with the most marbles. Usually, someone will say before the game, “Are we playing for fun or for keeps?” If you’re playing for fun you can have your marbles back at the end; but if you’re playing for keeps you get to keep all the marbles you knocked out of the circle. Sometimes we live our lives like that – playing for keeps, making winners out of those who have the most stuff. But Jesus said, “Whoever would follow me must lose everything. Take up your cross and follow me.” Whenever we make the most important things in life more important than God, we are loving things more than God. Let’s pray that we love people and God more than marbles and all that other fancy stuff. (Credit:

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

You ready to lose your marbles? Not because I’m an Ace Shooter or anything… but because that’s really the only way any of us will hear what Jesus has to say today – to first lose all our marbles – to get the short end of the stick – to be one card short of a full deck – and become a laughingstock for others!

Any takers? Who goes looking for those qualities? Who wants to be known as the guy with an elevator that doesn’t go all the way to the top floor? As the woman whose lights are on, but no one’s home? Or, as the person who was at the front of the line when brains were being handed out… but unfortunately, had to hold the door for everybody else!

Are these really the kinds of people Jesus would choose for disciples? Yup.  They were people who often didn’t get what he was all about. Or is it that they got it all right… but that they just couldn’t stomach the news that he was about to walk the path of suffering, rejection and death; and on the third day be raised from the dead?

Here’s the deal: no one willingly lets go of their marbles – of everything they hold near and dear – without being called on it. In our lesson for today, Jesus calls Peter on his long-held idea of what a Messiah ought to be. And he has a hard time letting go of that marble!

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Mark’s gospel – it’s a turning point. Jesus has just asked the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s hand is the first to go up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” “That’s right, Peter, good answer. Now, here’s the plan: suffering, rejection, get killed, rise again. Any questions?”

Peter took him aside, “Um… well, I was with you until that part about ‘the plan.’ But, Lord, you can’t be serious. We’ve left everything for you: our homes, our jobs, our families. This is our time to restore the kingdom of Israel. So, just cool it with all the suffering & dying business.” If he were alive today he’d probably say, “Do you want to grow your church, Jesus, or not? This is not the way to reach the unchurched!” But Jesus turns to his disciples, who were probably thinking the same thing, and he lays into Peter with some of the most violent words in all of scripture: “Get behind me, Satan! You’re setting your heart on human things, rather than on divine.”

Sometimes the only way for Jesus to get through to people was to slap them silly and wake them up a bit. In fact, much of Mark’s gospel has to do with healing the deaf and the blind. For Mark, faith wasn’t the opposite of doubt – it was the restoration of sight to the blind. Even Jesus’ closest comrades couldn’t see.

Walter Wink once put it this way: “What can be more frustrating than being made to understand that you don’t even understand what it is that you don’t understand?”

This Lenten season, we are listening for God and each other, trying to be open to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to be and to do as a congregation. But listening is hard work. Let’s not assume that we don’t all come full of voices and our own agenda (like Peter) to the table. Before they can truly believe they have to be opened to being emptied of all they have learned and brought to the group.

Another quote from Walter Wink: “Human beings… are not empty vessels needing to be filled. They are always already filled. They have already been shaped by the self-interests and collective experience of their own sector of the community.”

In other words, when we come to worship, or kneel in prayer, or attend a church meeting – we already come full of whatever the world has been dishing out the past 6 days! Jesus has to muddle through all that – all that society has deemed worthy of our grey matter. He receives us with open arms… but then starts to rearrange all the furniture in our house. “Hey, Jesus, be careful with that hutch!” “Hey Jesus, there’s no room for that ottoman. And that folding chair doesn’t quite fit the decor.” And we begin to wonder if it was such a good idea inviting him in in the first place!

Just like Peter.

We’ve had a few cottage meetings already – and it’s been wonderful to sit in and listen to where people are with their hopes and dreams for the future of Holy Cross! We’ve heard a lot about maintaining our facility and reaching the younger generations, as well as people in our own back yard – and across the globe in Tanzania. But one theme I’m pretty sure has not been brought up as a goal for the future: “We want to suffer, be rejected, die, and rise again.” I don’t think that was on any of the feedback forms we collected.

Now, we don’t intentionally go looking to be walked upon and spat upon. We do stand with those who are suffering, whether it’s Katrina, the tsunami, or, this week’s horrible display of nature’s wrath, from the southwest to the Midwest, where hundreds of tornadoes ripped through people’s lives.

We do stand up to slavery around the world, where the sex trade industry is still alive and well, even here in Minnesota. We do stand up to discrimination against people who are different from ourselves. We do stand up to those who recklessly pollute our planet and threaten endangered species and habitats toward extinction. We stand with children, who fall victim to gunfire in their own school!

Not because it’s noble or will gain us a reward in heaven. But because it’s what Jesus does. He plays for keeps – and the stakes are much higher than a few shiny marbles. He walks the way of suffering and bids us to follow. “Why follow a crucified Christ?” asked Kenneth Carder, “Because only a crucified messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God. Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering.”

I mean, really, when you’re at your worst (the death of a loved one or getting some shockingly bad news), when you’ve done something terribly wrong (betrayal or hurting another) do you really want a God who hasn’t walked through all that crap? Who knows that hurting place you can’t shake? Who once cried out from the cross, “Why, O God, have you forsaken me?”

There is no Easter victory with out Good Friday’s cross. As much as the world would like to fill our heads with pastel peeps (nothing against those tasty morsels) and chocolate bunnies – there is no amount of sugar that can sweeten the heartache one feels in the dark pit of suffering – when we truly are in need of a savior. Jesus’ remedy is a slap in the face – a swift kick in the seat of the pants – a healing gesture to receive sight and faith.

I want to close with this story from The Christian Century magazine, which was published in 1983 (some 30 years ago) but it has some merit for today. William Willimon, a noted preacher and author, tells the story of going to visit the hospital where a young couple from his church has just had a baby.

I sat with them in silence as they awaited the arrival of the pediatrician. It had been an easy delivery, but all was not well with the newborn.  The doctor spared few words. “Your baby is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, mongoloidism. I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure.”
“Is the baby healthy?” she asked.
“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you,” the doctor said. “The baby is healthy—except for the problem. However, it does have a slight, rather common respiratory ailment. My advice is that you let me take it off the respirator—that might solve things. At least, it’s a possibility.”
“It’s not a possibility for us,” they said together.
“I know how you feel,” responded the doctor. “But you need to think about what you’re doing. You already have two beautiful kids. Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress and family problems. Is it fair to do this to the children you already have? Is it right to bring this suffering into your family?”
At the mention of “suffering” I saw her face brighten, as if the doctor were finally making sense.
“Suffering?” she said quietly. “We appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. God suffered for us, and we will try to suffer for the baby, if we must.”
“Pastor, I hope you can do something with them,” the doctor whispered to me outside their door as he continued his rounds.
Two days later, the doctor and I watched the couple leave the hospital. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle; but it seemed a heavy burden to us, a weight on their shoulders. We felt as if we could hear them dragging, clanking it down the front steps of the hospital, moving slowly but deliberately into a cold, gray March morning.
“It will be too much for them,” the doctor said. “You ought to have talked them out of it. You should have helped them to understand.”
But as they left, I noticed a curious look on their faces; they looked as if the burden were not too heavy at all, as if it were a privilege and a sign. They seemed borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being carried toward some high place the doctor and I would not be going, following a way we did not understand.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in 30 years, seeing the ‘disabled’ as ‘differently-abled’ – as full members of the Body of Christ. The eyes of many have been opened to welcoming vulnerable adults into fuller participation in the life of the church. But that doesn’t happen without some serious rearranging of the furniture – some hard listening – and some cross-bearing by the people of God.

May we find new ways to recover our sight these 40 days of Lent and be led on our way trusting that our Lord goes before us.

Let us pray: O God, guide us along the narrow path in our times of suffering. Restore our sight and our faith in you – that we too may be lifted up and rise with new life and hope… in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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