The Cost of Discipleship (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 8:31-38


Kip shared on a public forum this past week his calling to ministry. I’d guess he has been a pastor for about 30 years now. Like a lot of us, his journey to discernment was not an easy one. He thought he knew what he wanted to do with his life, where he was going to college, the career he would prepare for at that college. Things seemed to be smooth sailing for Kip.

But then he went to CPYC (Cumberland Presbyterian Youth Conference), as he did every summer in his high school years, not so unlike many of the youth in our own church. At the final worship service for the week, there was the 15 minute quiet time that used to conclude each worship at CPYC—and may still to do so. As Kip departed to a quiet place, something happened inside of him, he said. As he shared, “I’ve never been able to accurately describe the feeling, but I was overwhelmed with emotion and found myself standing under a tree, looking up through the branches, with tears streaming. I remember saying, ‘God what is it you want me to do?’ I thought I knew, but I wasn’t sure.”

Well, such experiences at church camps and conferences can be powerful. But then you go home and life has a way of returning to normal. So Kip returned home, and he got back on the track that he thought was right for him—went to the college he thought he was supposed to attend, signed up for the courses that he thought would get him where he wanted to go. But there was no peace. He was on a journey that was not right for him. But how was he to know what journey was right? At a youth retreat, a respected adult suggested that maybe it was God who was speaking to Kip. As Kip said, “She was the one who called me to attention, told me to listen, and recognized something in me. She encouraged me to really look within and realize that God may have other plans for my journey.”

So Kip looked within and listened, and the trajectory of his life changed in alignment with where God was leading. In the days of his youth I was sort of a regular at CPYC. I was a counselor most every year. And he always struck me as big lug of a fellow from Texas, kind of a jock, who wore a Chicago Cubs batting helmet virtually everywhere he went. I had no idea all that was going on in him—that God was at work in him in a unique and creative way.

I should have known. I should have known from my own experience. How I struggled when I was his age and older to find myself. How I had maybe four different majors in college with at least that many possible careers in mind. But nothing seemed quite right. Until one night, walking outside the motel room where I was staying with my parents in Jackson, Tennessee, it hit me. Members of our youth group had spoken at a meeting of General Assembly and I was one of the speakers. I don’t remember why they asked us to speak or what we spoke about. But that is why I was there, in Jackson, on that night, by myself, outside that motel room. And it came to me that I was being addressed. God was speaking to me. And on that night I found the direction that has led me to be with you now as your pastor all these years later.

Of course, when God calls, people often think of ministry. But that is not the case most of the time. Our son Will, who grew up in this church, was quite the entertainer when he was in high school and college. He played the guitar. He sang. He acted. He was a theater major in college. All of which played a role in leading him out to Los Angeles where a group of his friends were going to revive a rap group they had in college—singing, dancing, entertaining. It never quite worked out. So Will bounced around, making a living for himself. But not doing what he intended to do.

Then one night his mother and I received an email from Will. “I have a calling to be a teacher,” he told us. I am not sure those are the exact words he used. But I do remember two words vividly—call and teacher. And so he went back to school, earned his teaching credentials, studied to pass competency exams in his chosen teaching field of social studies, and became a teacher. Some days are not easy. But he loves his work. He loves the kids. And I imagine that a theatrical background comes in handy with middle schoolers. He was called and he answered the call.

Sometimes callings come through pain and terrible anguish as we are witnessing now with those high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But I see those kids standing up and speaking with such eloquence, calling politicians to account for their lack of action, marching in the streets, answering reporters’ questions incisively and directly, and I think that something has gotten a hold of them—a calling to make the world they have inherited a better place in which to live. What they are doing is not easy. The call they have answered is not without controversy or its detractors.

But then I think of the person whose name is on their school signs, Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Do you know who she was? I must admit that I did not. I assumed she was some longtime and beloved school teacher in the community. But I learned this past week that Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a writer and journalist, writing for a time for the Miami Herald. She died in 1998 at the age of 108. She had been an activist—championing women’s suffrage and civil rights. But she is primarily known for being an environmentalist and struggled against business interests to advocate for the maintenance and care of the Florida Everglades. She wrote words that are being taken to heart by the students attending the school with her name: “Be a nuisance where it counts; do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.” And she must have taken her own advise. John Rothchild, who helped her write her autobiography, said that her death at age 108 was the only thing that could “shut her up” and added, “The silence is terrible.”

Our scripture for the day is well-known, if hard for many of us to swallow. It features Peter taking Jesus aside and giving him a good talking to. “Jesus, old buddy old pal, this business about your having to suffer, be rejected (by the religious authorities no less!), and then be killed, is just not going to work. It is just not what happens to the Messiah, which you most definitely are. Messiahs run the show. They have the power. They get things done. They are most definitely not rejected and killed.” And of course what Peter did not say, but was very much on his mind, as we learn as the gospel of Mark continues: the followers of the Messiah share in his glory. When he comes riding into town victorious over all God’s enemies, his followers are there sharing in the applause, letting the confetti fall off of them, eating up all the loud accolades as they plan to take their places at the right and left hand of the Messiah in his glory.

Well, Peter was close to Jesus. But not so close that Jesus couldn’t be straight with him, even if that comes off pretty harsh to our ears. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to Peter. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” So evidently whatever temptation by Satan that Jesus faced in that wilderness that we heard about last Sunday was represented in the presence of Peter who was looking for Jesus to take the easy way in his calling—one that didn’t call for rejection, suffering, and death; one that led to glory without all that unpleasantness; one that ultimately led to resurrection without a cross.

And Jesus said, no. What Peter was proposing was the way of Satan. So, after giving Peter a good dressing-down, Jesus called his disciples and the crowd (and we might consider ourselves a part of that crowd being addressed by Jesus) and he says to all of us, “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?”

Tough words. And for those in Jesus’ time who had seen Roman crosses lined up on the road, capital punishment for insurrectionists, the words of Jesus must have been especially chilling. In fact, in the year 6 A.D. the Romans had crucified two thousand Galilean insurrectionists for the public to see and be afraid. So, if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me? Really?

The issue here is one of calling. Is Jesus our pal, sent to the world to fit into our scheme of things? Ready to follow our preconceptions of the way he is supposed to operate? Or is it his calling that is paramount? Do we listen for the voice of what we want to do? Or do we listen to the voice that claims us at a deeper level? That speaks to us with a will not our own? That is what Kip was facing? It is what I was facing. It is what Will was facing. Maybe it is what those students in Parkland, Florida are facing.

Something gets a hold of us. It did those sanitation workers in Memphis 50 years ago. In spite of the opposition, in spite of the difficulties, they decided that they deserved dignity. They deserved to be treated like human beings. And people like our own Dudley Condron stood with them. As a minister working for our denomination, he took criticism. He got nasty letters. Like so many others, his job was threatened. But there was the call, the call to be faithful to the way of Jesus regardless of what it cost. And of course it cost people a lot. It cost Martin Luther King, Jr. his life.

But what Jesus was calling people to do when he called them to deny themselves is not that they/we are to hate ourselves or put ourselves down or even put up with unjust and needless abuse. Rather, he was talking about denying the selves that are always grasping and wanting to be on top (like Peter and the other disciples who thought that being followers of Jesus the Messiah was like winning the lottery) in order to be the selves who seek to live in the way of Jesus—loving as he loves, forgiving as he forgives, serving as he serves, living as he lived, allowing him to live in and through us.

As the hymn we sometimes sing puts it, “Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea; day by day his sweet voice soundeth saying, ‘Christian, follow me.’” And here we, each of us, are invited to respond, “Yes, Lord, I will follow.”

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, February 25, 2018

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