To Be or Not To Be?
Mark 8: 31–35
During this Lenten season, you offer us, God, the opportunity to test our choices and our focus. We struggle with the difficult and yet important choices and paradoxes that lie at the heart of life. May we recommit ourselves to take up the cross for the sake of the gospel along the path towards the joy of Easter. Amen.
I have permission to tell this story. A couple of months ago, I visited Dick, (not his real name,) at home as his health had recently deteriorated. He was a member of my previous pastoral charge, Beverley Hills United. When I left that congregation two years ago to come here, he was a man of great strength, boasting a big stature and being very active in many outdoor activities including sailing. I was shocked to hear that he had become so ill so suddenly last fall. I think he is one of those who would never have imagined themselves lingering in a hospital bed before they die.
When I arrived at his home, I found Dick sitting on the chesterfield; he greeted me with a smile. He certainly was not the same person he used to be. His face was swollen, his body thin, and he was attached to an oxygen tank to relieve his laborious breathing. It was obvious that he was quite ill. He must have been thinking seriously about the end of his life. That was why he had asked me to come and see him that day.
Dick is well educated and intelligent. So, after some social conversation, I felt free to ask him what he believed about death and life beyond death. As I expected, he welcomed my questions and openly talked about his own expected death. He said he was not afraid of death, not because he believed in the afterlife in a traditional way, but because he felt blessed with many wonderful things in his life. Belief in a heaven or hell did not offer him any comfort at all, but he felt comfortable with the thought that he would return to the earth in one form or another. Then, our conversation moved to his plans and wishes about his funeral. This was one of those moments when I feel
privileged as a minister.
According to the writer of the Gospel of Mark, in the passage we read this morning we hear about Jesus’ death. Is he seriously ill? What is going on? Well, today, Jesus and his disciples are near Caesarea Philippi. For the first time, Jesus teaches that he will suffer and die. Jesus is not sick. He is still strong and there is much work ahead of him to be done. But today, he is talking about his death. This is the last thing his followers want to hear from him at this time on their journey together. They are shocked.
Peter particularly is upset; he cannot accept this; this is not what is expected of God’s messiah, and Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter takes Jesus aside, perhaps thinking that Jesus is not well but just tired or overwhelmed. However, Jesus’ response is extremely harsh, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (v.33).” The time has come for Jesus and his disciples to make serious choices. Jesus rebukes Peter in return and challenges the entire crowd to consider what it means to follow him and trust in God’s saving love.
What follows is Mark’s gathering of phrases about the meaning of true life handed down orally over the last four decades, such as those about “forgetting oneself.” Mark has clearly recorded these sayings with an eye toward the concrete sufferings endured by Christians in his time. The sayings, which begin “If any want to become my followers,” refer to the ongoing reality of Christian life at the time: a disciple must take up the cross (v. 34b); he or she must be willing to lose his or her life (v. 35); and he or she must not deny Jesus when challenged by others (v. 38). “To Be or Not To Be?” is the question those first followers of Jesus had to answer in those days.
How do these sayings of Jesus sound to us here and now? If we were asked to risk our own lives in order to join the church, how many of us would say yes? If we were asked to be willing to lose our own lives by taking up the cross, how many of us would be happy to come to church these days? Well, I fear I would be among those who flee as far away from church as I could.
Strangely enough, these harsh teachings of Jesus did not chase his followers away from the growing faith community in the first century. Rather, historically the church owed much of its growth to the countless martyrs who chose to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Christianity grew and grew, converting even the Roman Emperors, and eventually dominated much of the Western world for two millennia. This is the paradoxical truth of Christian history.
Until last year, Dick had never thought seriously about the end of his life. Instead, he believed that he would be the last one among his church members to be buried. Now, he realized that he would probably become the first person to be buried since his church closed last year. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for him to accept the reality of his dying.
When diagnosed with a deadly cancer, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, accepted the reality of his dying in a transformative way. In his famous
commencement address, he shared his insight about death like this: Stanford University
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Mr. Jobs was not talking about death, but actually about life, how to live truthfully. Mr. Jobs could not have addressed the paradox of life any more eloquently.
I came here two years ago as your Intentional Interim Minister. As my term will end this June, we have a few more months to work together. We are very pleased with the progress of our interim work and looking forward to the final recommendations of our Joint Search Committee with great excitement and anticipation now. We hope that we will be able to make a decision to call a new minister before the end of this month and begin anew our journey with the new minister this July.
Our interim work is time-constrained. From the beginning, we set up a time line for our ministry and worked together diligently to keep up to our schedule. We had to be keenly aware of the limited time we had to complete our work. Our journey is intense. There is no time to waste. There is no time to make excuses. There is no time to play games. There is no time to blame others. There is no time to worry about failure. We must focus on what needs to be done.
Two years have gone by so quickly. However, we have achieved a great deal so far, working on the conflicts of the past, identifying who we are and envisioning our future together, changing the structure for our leadership to meet new realities so that we will be well prepared to begin our journey anew. I wonder if our keen awareness of the end of our time together has helped us achieve this much. I wonder if we have lived out the reality of the paradox of life together.
As we enter more
into the experience of Lent, we are called to reflect upon what it means to
live faithfully. Often we are called to make difficult and costly choices. Lent
calls us to contemplate life’s agonies and paradoxes. It is a time to think about the choices we
make for our faith journey together. May
God bless us on our Lenten journey towards Easter. Amen.