Lectionary Reflection for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011
Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25
Have you ever watched NBC’s series The Biggest Loser? This popular show chronicles the weight loss experiences of real people who are cast each season to compete in the journey to healthy weight and exercise. Last season’ couples winners, sisters Olivia Ward and Hannah Curlee, lost a whopping 129 and 120 pounds respectively. The competition has given them a new sense of self and purpose. You can read about them by clicking here.
In a culture where we are continually told to seek more, acquire more, and deserve more, this show points out how “losing” more can actually help to fulfill hopes and dreams and lead to a healthier life. The Biggest Loser also illustrates vividly that “losing it” is not an easy process. It takes commitment, discipline, support, and communication.
Could there be a lesson for Christians here? This week’s gospel lesson from Matthew finds Jesus trying to teach his disciples about the high cost of losing it, telling them that he must suffer and die before being raised from death. This doesn’t square with Peter’s vision of what course his master’s life should follow. Shouldn’t he rise to the disciples’ vision of what the Messiah should be? Couldn’t he overthrow the establishment and bring about a glorious reign of peace and prosperity? It isn’t that Peter’s intentions are bad; he wants good things to happen. The problem is that Peter wants his idea of good things to happen. He imposes human ideals on Jesus and projects his own version of what Jesus should be upon the Lord of the universe.
Jesus rebukes him for setting his sights on human desires and ambitions rather than on the counter-cultural, radical reversals of the divine way. Following Jesus is not easy. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Just like Peter and the other disciples, we are called to lay down our notions and trappings of human success with its seeming security in return for what seems insecure (and sometimes downright crazy) yet is promised to lead to real life. To “win” we must “lose.”
Sound scary? I’m sure the prospect of losing more than a hundred pounds sounds scary to the contestants on The Biggest Loser. Not only are they embarking on something that’s probably more difficult than anything else they’ve ever done, they’re doing it in front of a television audience. If they fail, they fail in a most public way. These contestants must put themselves out there–heart, mind, body, and soul–to win by losing. Thankfully, they have all the tools necessary to be successful if they will but give it the effort: trainers, dieticians, location, and all manner of support.
We Christians also have all the tools necessary to be successful in losing our “overstuffed lives” in order to gain real life. We have the trainer (Jesus), we have the manual (scripture), and we have the location and support (the church). We are set up to win if we will but lose. Yes, it will be tough and requires commitment and discipline, along with a willingness to be interdependent and to communicate with one another. It will also be rewarding if we listen to Jesus’ words “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Do you really have what it takes to be a loser for Christ? Are you willing to put your life, all that it means to be you and how you define yourself, on the line? Are you ready to lose everything in order to gain the one thing that matters? These are tough questions, but perhaps they’re not really so daunting when one considers the alternative question Jesus poses: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
Our world teaches us to win at all costs–not lose. Yet Christ teaches us that it is in losing that we really win. In actuality, Christians are the biggest losers in the world. Our challenge is to help one another see that being a loser is not only possible but preferable; in fact, it is the only truly satisfying option. Our comfort is that we do not lose alone. We lose for the sake of the gospel, and in the process we gain real life. Blessings on your preaching and teaching!
Hymn #798 in the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) is “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell (Text © 1987 Iona Community, admin. GIA Publications, Inc.). This beautiful and easy to sing selection offers wonderful possibilities for interweaving with the sermon, finishing with the fifth verse as a prayer. Several versions of the song are available on YouTube. My personal favorite is found here. If you have a tech savvy parishioner, you could easily put together your own images that are suitable to your particular context.
This Sunday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. is to be dedicated. Consider talking with youth about how King is an example of how someone denied his life to follow Christ. Many of Dr. King’s speeches are available on the web. Use the Romans text as a basis for your discussion.
The Greatest Weapon (based on the epistle for the week, Romans 12:9-21)
Pull some toy “weapons” out of a big bag, perhaps a plastic sword, a water gun, a sling shot, a Nerf gun, a pillow, and so forth. Also pull out a paper heart. Talk to the children about the various “weapons” and ask them which one would make the best weapon. Do not mention the paper heart. Allow time to hear and respond to their various answers. Finally, pick up the paper heart and tell them this is your pick for the best weapon because love is always stronger than any other weapon. Read verses 9-10 and 19-21. End with a prayer like this one:
Lord, your Son Jesus taught us that love is always the best weapon to combat hate and evil. Help us to beat our swords into tools for peace and to use the love in our hearts to restore good and light in this world. Thank you for showing us the way. Thank you for loving us always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.