What is in a Number and other lies about Success

September 16, 2018 (24nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/Proper 19)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19

Mark 8:27-38

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


8:27 “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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.” 34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.” (Mark 8:27-38, NRSV)


Let us pray: Through suffering and rejection, O God, you bring forth our salvation, for in Jesus you embrace our humanity and transform our lives by the glory of his cross. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may rebuke the lure of this world, take up our cross, and follow your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.


The gospel reading is the heart of Mark’s Gospel.  In fact, I would say that it is the heart of the Bible.  This is it— this is what being a Christian is all about. We can boil down the bible to a few key verses, thoughts or images and this is one of them: Who do you say that I am?


I believe it was Mark Twain, who once said “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.”[1]


I resonate with that thought.  This passage from Mark hits me in the gut in good ways and in very challenging, intimidating ways.


Jesus and his disciples have been traveling in Galilee preaching and healing and casting out demons and all the while building up a sizable following.  Who wouldn’t want to be healed and have demons cast out?  Just as things are positive and growing for this new expression of faith, Jesus casually turns to his disciples and asks them who people say that he is.  They answer rather easily.  Then he makes it more personal, “Who do YOU say that I am?”  In a moment of clarity Peter proclaims that he knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who had been promised.


So, what is it that people were expecting in a Messiah?  Someone to heal us when we are sick.  Someone to make life better.  If you listen to our political candidates bantering back and forth about what all they can do, it seems like what we want in a leader is someone to create jobs and make the unemployment rate go down, to lower taxes, to keep our military strong and keep us safe.  To bring our country back to its powerful rightful place in the world.  So maybe that is what we imagine a real Messiah to be.


Jesus decides that the disciples are ready to hear what following a Messiah is all about.  Instead of strength, Jesus talks about weakness.  Instead of gaining popularity and escalating poll numbers, Jesus talks about denial and losing and the cross.  Jesus talks about dying, that dying is the way of discipleship.


I am with Peter, who wants to follow a loser, who wants to sign on for defeat.  Talk about a horrible growth strategy for a new start up.   I can imagine Peter saying, “Come on Jesus don’t get all morbid on us and don’t talk about death and dying.   We want the prosperity gospel, we are winners, we want shiny, happy, positive talk.   None of this depressing, Debbie downer drivel that will never attract any new members.   Remember what we talked about in our focus group?   We are about life and joy and happiness and security.  Don’t ruin what we got going here.”

Yet, Jesus sticks to his message.  There is no resurrection without a crucifixion, without death.  There is no living without dying.  We all know that in giving we receive.  In serving we are served.  It is the message of Christianity, but it is a message that is easy to hear with our ears but hard to let sink into our living.


This is a harsh reality, to realize that Jesus is talking about following him on a journey of diminishing returns.   It is a real struggle as a preacher in the church today to be faithful to the message of Jesus when we are confronted with the decline of the church and Christianity worldwide.   The structure of the mainline church is one thing but then we have the whacko’s who give Jesus followers a bad name, equating racism and classism and sexism and every other – ism as biblically inspired.  Hatred in the name of Jesus, a divine mandate of white male supremacy, and a cause to divide, demean and separate.   It is not what Jesus is about, nor is it the message of this text.   Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me, is hard enough but having to define ourselves over and against others who claim to follow Jesus as we do, makes it next to impossible.

It is no wonder, that nationwide church attendance is down, baptisms are down, conversions are down, giving is down.  Now there are some rays of hope, some good things happening here and there, but really, following Jesus can be a depressing venture.   But if you think about it, it makes sense.  In our culture that is hell bent on positive, prosperity, and what can religion do for me, who wants to come to church and hear about death, sacrifice, giving up, carrying a cross?


I do it too.  I am not immune.  None of us are.  When I stop and think I too am driven by the messages of the world.  I start to think that what matters in life is being successful, in how well people like me, in how hip I can be (my children are cringing right now), how much money is in my bank account, what I do with my free time.  I do it with myself and with my family.   I want them to excel at everything, sports, academics, have friends, do well in life.


It permeates my professional life.  Success is all about the numbers, the church will grow if I preach a great sermon week after week and lots of people come to church.  If we are doing a good job then our giving will go up, our attendance will go up, our programs will flourish.  I measure myself in how many people come to church, how is attendance?   How is our giving?  How we compare to other congregations, the Methodists and the Baptists.  I have that competitive edge to me, even though I might hide it.   Then we read this text and Jesus says otherwise.


Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  Am I thinking that I can do more, I can do better job, etc.… That is the message of our culture, of the world.  That is the deceiving message of the world, a deceiving message that seduces us into easy shallow living, into setting our minds on earthly things.  But Jesus says, it’s about losing your life to find it.


So why in the world would anyone want to come to church, give up an hour on a beautiful Sunday morning to hear about death and about denial and about suffering. It is not a message that sells.


Reverend Will Willimon, longtime chaplain at Duke University tells a story about A recruiter for Teach for America — a program that recruits bright, young people from college campuses to teach in America’s most deprived school systems — who came to speak at Duke. The auditorium full of high achieving students, and the recruiter began by saying, “Looking at you tonight, I don’t know why I’m here. I can tell looking at you that you’re bound for bright futures and success. And here I stand, trying to recruit you for a salary of $15,000 a year in some of the worst schools in America, begging you to waste your life for a bunch of ungrateful kids in the backwoods of Appalachia or inner-city Philadelphia.  I must have been crazy to come here.  But I do have some literature up here, and I would be willing to talk to anybody who happens to be interested.  The meeting is over.” An amazing number of students went forward, dying to give themselves to something bigger and more important than their own selves.[2]


You see I believe we cling to all these things in the world that we think will finally make us happy and safe and secure, but when they don’t and inevitably they won’t we find ourselves feeling lost.  For none of the worldly ideas of life can sustain us.  They only provide momentary happiness until we get another fix.  I think deep down we long for this message that life is not about us.  Life is not about how well your kid does on a test, or how well you do in a job evaluation.  Life is not about the attendance for a church service. Life is not about whether you can keep the wrinkles from appearing.  Life isn’t about whether everyone likes you.   Life isn’t even about whether you are successful.


Life is about giving yourself away.  Life is about following the ways of the kingdom of God.  Life is about caring for other people, in fact giving things up so that others can have more.  Life is about dying.  Dying to self, dying to only being concerned about your own little world.  Life is about embracing the weak, the lost, the hurting.


And then strangely with all this loss, what you and I gain is real life, authentic life, meaningful life, and ultimately eternal life.

[1] Reverend Monnie Caine, Sermon on Mark 8:27-38, September 16, 2012 at Normandy Presbyterian Church, Normandy, Tennessee.

[2] Ibid.