pastorEric aug2014Sermon for 16th Pentecost - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -

I have experienced many blessings in my life and been privileged to have many mountaintop experiences. In my former work as ELCA communication director, I met Pope John Paul II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Orthodox Patriarch as well as Yassir Arafat, the President of Israel and the Prince of Jordan. My wife, Kris, and I took part in the consecration of the Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem. These were all wonderful experiences and lifetime highlights.

But, the place where I have felt closest to God came not in St. Peter’s Church with the Pope in Rome or during the installation of the new Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem, as glorious as those events were, but in a small village high in the mountains of Honduras, sitting and singing with a group of ELCA communicators who were in that village to help villagers rebuild their homes after Hurricane Mitch.

ELCAHondurasGroupIn 1998 Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the villages of Provenir and Corralitos, Honduras. One year later I led a group of ELCA communicators to these two villages high in the Honduran mountains, for a week of work with their residents, helping them to build new homes, homes that would be solidly built and out of the flood plain in case of future natural disasters. We dug footers, hauled and laid cinder block foundations, and rebuilt roadways. We slept on the floor of a wooden structure built to feed and house volunteers like us. We worshipped, worked, and reflected with each other and those we were called to serve. The villagers did not speak English nor most of us Spanish, but that really did not matter. The work and worship bound us together. It was an exhausting and perfectly wonderful experience.



One aspect of our life in Honduras that week was what the locals called “Gringo TV.” What that meant, we soon found out, was that we, as Anglo outsiders, were an attraction in this isolated village without electricity, plumbing or running water. Each evening as our group gathered together to worship and reflect on our day working with these villagers to rebuild their homes, many in the village would gather around our gathering and sit and watch. We were a rare attraction for them, “Gringo TV.”

The time when I’ve most felt the Holy Spirit’s presence came one evening in this village. We were reflecting and singing hymns and spiritual songs, many first-learned at church camp. We were surrounded by villagers who were listening intently even though most did not speak the language to which they listened. I am certain they felt God’s presence as we did. It was the simplest and most profound of experiences – the singing and praying brought with it the closest feeling I had ever had of God’s presence. I leaned over to my wife, Kris, who was part of this rebuilding group, and said, “Savor this moment; we won’t have many in our lives like this one.”




I thought of that moment when I read scholar David Lose’s commentary on today’s Gospel lesson from St. Mark. Lose states that this lesson asks us three questions:

• What gives you the greatest joy in life? 
• What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? 
• When you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?

We will return to these questions in a few moments.

Lose suggests that this passage is crucial to understanding Mark’s Gospel and, indeed, the invitation into the kingdom of God it seeks to share.

Although it is the briefest of the four Gospels, Mark turns out to be a master of suspense and surprise. In this passage, a carefully developed, though largely implicit, element of suspense and tension is finally made explicit in Jesus’ questioning of his disciples.

You see, throughout Mark’s story up to this point no one is quite sure what to make of Jesus. In fact, no one even knows who he is. Except, of course, we do because we’re told in the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is the son of God. But those in the story do not yet know this.

And so when we read Mark we feel that same sense of tension you do whenever we watch a movie and know something the main characters do not know – we want them to figure it out and worry what will happen if they do not.

And so we almost breathe a sigh of relief when Peter, in a flash of insight, is no longer content with viewing Jesus as one of the prophets old or new, but realizes that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one chosen and anointed to deliver Israel from oppression. And we think, great, Peter has finally gotten it!

Well, Peter gets the title right, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. And so when Jesus begins to talk not about the road to glory but instead the one that leads to the cross, Peter rebukes Jesus - and then Jesus rebukes Peter right back.

And, if we are honest, Jesus’ rebuke also calls into question our own understanding of Jesus, because Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well.

Peter, you and me, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our military and sports teams onto victory, and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise.

But that’s not what Jesus offers.

Instead, Jesus points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. A God who meets us, that is, in those moments when we really need God, moments when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are, quite simply, mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are. Jesus’ identity proves elusive precisely because God shows up just where we least expect God to be.

Which means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need.

Thus far in this text, Jesus has been talking only to his disciples. But after this encounter with Peter, Jesus calls the crowds to come closer and listen. And then he takes up the question of the Christian life, stating plain and simple that those who wish to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross.

Jesus is stating that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us by society is not real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us.

We tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out that life is like love, it can not be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have. In fact – as parents know profoundly – only when you love others do you most understand what love really is.

Likewise, only when you give away your life for the sake of others do you discover it - in thinking about how to fulfill others needs your own deepest needs are met. This is both the mystery of life and the key to the kingdom of God.

This little story stands at the very center of Mark’s story of Jesus and marks the turn from Jesus’ teaching and preaching throughout Galilee and its environs to his steadfast, even relentless march to the cross. In this sense, it is the pivot point of the Gospel.

At the same time, Jesus’ message was and is absolutely and totally counter-cultural simply because we live in a world of ownership and scarcity where there is never enough and the only thing you can count on are the things you own.

And Jesus challenges all of that by telling us that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away: like love and mercy and kindness and compassion.

Jesus tells us that the only things we can really hold onto are the things we give away: love and mercy and kindness and compassion. Which is why this Gospel lesson is so important.

And here is when we turn back to David Lose’s three questions for our lives:

• What gives you the greatest joy in life?
• What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose?
• When you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?

For me, all three came together on that long ago evening high in the mountains of Honduras. Yours may not be as dramatic, but I am guessing your answers to these questions do not involve something you bought, or even earned, but rather are rooted in relationship, in acts of service, and even in acts of what the world calls “sacrifice” when you are caring for another.

And this is what cross-bearing, taking up your cross and following Jesus, saving and losing one’s life for the sake of others, that is what this all is about in 2015. Self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, you see, but about discovering the real and abundant life – a kind of life the culture can hardly imagine – that comes in and through sacrificial love in service to another.

Jesus tells us that the only things we can really hold onto are the things we give away: love and mercy and kindness and compassion.

So, what gives you the greatest joy in life?



The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California

Cross Bearing
Sermon for 16th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
September 12 / 13, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California


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