February 28, 2021, Life Is Not a Game of Candyland, Mark 8:31-38 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000240
So, we seem to be doing a lot of harping on the theme of travel these days. If you’re reading the Lenten devotional that I sent out this year, you know that the theme that binds the different authors and writings together is the theme of pilgrimage, all kinds of pilgrimage. There is geographical pilgrimage, like following the ancient pilgrim’s road called the Camino through France and Spain, or the Appalachian trail along the mountain range that runs along the eastern part of our country. There is historic pilgrimage, pilgrimage of memory, like the woman who leads people through the many memorials of lynching sites in the American South. There is personal pilgrimage, like the journey of learning to live – to live and thrive – with severe physical disabilities or the heavy burden of our past. The point of the book being that all of these pilgrimages are part of the spiritual pilgrimage that is our life of faith in Jesus Christ.
Then last week, when we talked about Jesus’s time of testing in the wilderness, I suggested that our observation of this Lenten season that we’re in right now, is a way for us to travel with our Lord out into the wilderness, to experience that time of testing and preparation for ministry with him – metaphorically, yes, but not only metaphorically, because just as Jesus was tested and tried, we will definitely find ourselves tested and tried, and God is definitely preparing us to do his work. And Lent, in particular – with all our emphasis on self-examination, and repentance, and discipline, Lent is the perfect season for our journey into the desert.
And all that is all very well, and it is certainly all very true. And hopefully it is all very helpful. But if you are like me, most of the time, if I am absolutely honest, my gut feeling is that I’m really not on any kind of a journey at all. As they say, (whoever “they” are) I very, very often feel like I am going nowhere fast.
In my life I have set so many different kinds of milestones to measure my progress in this life that God has gifted me with. I am the mother of ten, so it is natural, I think, that a lot of the milestones I set for myself have to do with my identity as a mother. All of my children are grown-ups now, of course, but we don’t stop being mothers and fathers just because our children aren’t children any more. And there are days when I have a two-hour conversation with one of my daughters or a long discussion about “the meaning of things” with my one of my sons, and I am filled with joy and hope and gratitude, and I feel that I have surely reached a mile marker, that my children are growing and thriving and becoming, and I didn’t ruin their lives by my many failures as a mother.
But then, of course, there are days when my children are going through hard times, when I can so clearly see my own faults and genetic traits in them, hindering them from finding joy or fulfillment. I see the children I love suffering from my self-doubt and insecurity, my failure to be an adequate model of faith or confidence or wisdom. And then I am devastated.
Have you ever played the game Candy Land? You draw cards, and you move your little colored marker along the path through the sugar-laced world of Candy Land. You get stuck in the Molasses Swamp, You march through the Lollipop Forest. And so forth, and so on. But just as you draw near to the candy-coated cottage that is the goal of the whole game, it never fails – never – that you draw the Candy Hearts card, and it sends you all the way back to the beginning, so that the game goes on and on without hope of victory or even conclusion. That’s Candy Land.
But that’s also life as a parent, right? Just when we feel we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we are blindsided by fear and guilt and regret. And it’s not only parenting. It may very well be that I’m the only one who faces these struggles, that none of the rest of you is quite such a mess as I am. But if you are like me you know that we have the same kinds of experiences in every part of our lives. We set up milestones for ourselves, for our education, our career, our marriage, our body, our relationship with God; we measure our progress. But just as we think we have reached a goal, it seems, we find ourselves sent hurtling backward through some spectacular failure or other. Or we begin to rejoice in our progress, our one step forward, only to see that someone else is miles ahead of us, and our shabby little bit of progress suddenly becomes a source of shame and embarrassment to us. All the way back to Candy Hearts we go.
This morning, believe it or not, we keep on with this theme of travel. The gospel reading today is all about Jesus inviting us on a journey. He calls together his twelve disciples, and the crowd that has been following them, and he says this, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
There are a lot of different things Jesus might have meant by that very familiar invitation. There were a lot of different things Jesus did mean when he called people to follow him. Once, when a rich young man came to Jesus he was told, “You’re doing great following the Law and living a good life. Just one more thing: sell all your worldly goods, and give them to the poor, and then, come, follow me.” Another man who met Jesus just wanted time to set his family affairs in order, and Jesus told him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You, leave it all behind you, and follow me.” Another man who wanted to follow Jesus just got a warning. “You had better know this before you decide to follow me: birds have nests and foxes have their little holes in the ground, but I’ve got nowhere and nothing.” And then, still others, the fishermen Jesus called at the very beginning of his ministry, they got a promise. “Follow me,” Jesus told Peter and Andrew and James and John. “And I will make you into fishers of men.”
The only way we can know what Jesus means here by his call to take up our cross and follow him, really, is to look at the context. What’s the rest of the conversation here? What’s happening? Where are they heading? And we see first that just before Jesus makes this invitation, he’s been teaching his disciples something they didn’t want to hear. “Jesus began to teach them,” Mark tells us, “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” He’s been teaching them about his death. And Peter, speaking I’m sure for the rest of the gang, is having none of it. He pulls Jesus aside to try to talk some sense into him, and you remember Jesus’s very harsh rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You’ve got your mind on human things, not on the things of God.”
And there’s more context as well. After Jesus issues his invitation to the whole crowd, he starts to talk again – about death. “Whoever is concerned with saving his life will certainly lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, that person will save his life.” Jesus is teaching about death, about his own death, and human death, and nested right in the middle of this teaching he sends out his invitation, “So, if you want to be my disciple, pick up your own cross, and follow me.” Notice, he tells us to pick up our cross, which is a symbol of death, a symbol of the most shameful and painful death, at that.
So here’s the invitation. You have been invited, by the Lord of the Universe, to follow him on a pilgrimage of death. And maybe that’s not the pilgrimage we had in mind. It certainly wasn’t the journey Peter had in mind. He was already busy checking off the milestones for Jesus’s successful ministry. Huge crowds of people coming to listen and to be healed. Check. Jesus getting more popular than even the Scribes and the Pharisees. Check. Jesus gathering a loyal following to sweep in and destroy the power of the occupying forces of Rome. Well, not yet, but…. And then Jesus starts talking about what sounds an awful lot like failure, defeat, death. All the way back to Candy Hearts. Or worse.
The problem with making this pilgrimage of death is that it ruins all our nice milestones. Our successes – our educational goals, financial gain, success in ministry, victorious parenting, impressive spirituality, good reputation, weight loss, all those things we strive for, all of our markers for success – none of those things brings us any farther along this road. And, on the other hand, our failures don’t hold us back either. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that we keep our eyes on Jesus, who travels this road with us; Jesus, who knows the way; Jesus, who carried his cross ahead of us. If we fall down, it’s okay – Jesus fell three times along the road. If we need help, it’s okay. Jesus needed help as well. But stay the course.
Jesus’s pilgrimage has a strange logic. To stay the course, to take up our cross and follow Jesus towards death, turning neither to the right to pursue our successes, nor to the left to berate ourselves for our failures, is the only way to find life. “Whoever is concerned with saving his life will certainly lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, that person will save his life. What possible good could there be in being victorious by the world’s standards, reaching every milestone, only to find you’ve lost the only way that leads to life? What could you possibly gain that you could offer in trade for your life? The world offers you nothing of real value.
And now all Jesus’s other invitations make sense. They are all the same. The rich young man; the man who was the executor of his father’s will; the man who wanted comfortable accommodations along the way; Peter, who thought he knew what success looked like: Jesus invited every one of them to give it all up: to give up whatever, anything, everything, that was preventing them from taking the journey with him.
And you, too – you have been invited, by our Lord Jesus Christ, to follow him on a pilgrimage of death, dying to the priorities and demands, all the candy castles of this world. He calls you to forget every other path, every other goal, every mile marker and comparison, all success and all failure, all pride and all shame. He calls you to empty yourself of everything but love, to go forth in gladness and singleness of heart, as we pray each week, because the way of the cross is the way, the only way, of abundant life.