February 21, 2020
I delivered the following homily, based on this same gospel reading, in August 2014:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
When I am preparing to preach, I study the readings for the weekend several times, highlighting words and jotting down notes as I go.
This week I highlighted this passage from Mark’s gospel: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Next to this highlighted passage, I wrote: Jesus needs a new marketing team. Reading this gospel wouldn’t cause many people to say, “Christianity sounds great, where do I sign up?”
Being a disciple of Christ can be a pretty tough road at times. It’s not surprising so many veer off the road or choose a different road altogether, opting for the path of least resistance.
Carol and I have four children, two boys and two girls. Growing up, the two boys could not have been more different. My son Rick was an athlete. He always had a ball in his hand. He would play football, then basketball, then baseball, then repeat the cycle all over again.
Coaches who had Rick on their team loved him, because he was considered a “coachable kid.” Which simply meant, he would follow directions, and do what he was asked with no questions asked. A coachable kid would run through the wall for his coach.
Robby, not so much. He was not an athlete, and never really wanted to be an athlete. He went out for football in fifth grade because he thought that was what he was supposed to do. His friends played football; his brother played football; his dad coached football, so he figured he should give it a shot.
One of Robby’s coaches shared this story with me. At practice the team was doing a drill called The Pit. Two players would line up across from one another, and on the coach’s whistle they would collide and try to move the other backward while the rest of the team cheered them on. Barbaric, of course, but it was fun and it gave the coaches an idea of how their new, young players would respond to hitting and being hit.
The coach noticed Robby standing to the side, watching the action in The Pit with his helmet under his arm. Concerned, the coach asked him if he was OK, and Robby said he was.
Then Coach asked him the obvious question, “Why aren’t you doing the drill?”
Robby, always the thinker, said this: “First, it looks like someone could get hurt, and I don’t want to get hurt. Second, I’m not sure how doing this will make me a better football player.”
The coach admitted to me that it was tough to argue with that logic.
I should add that Robby is now an awesome 22-year-old with countless gifts to offer the world. He didn’t want to play football anyway, so ultimately it didn’t really matter if he participated in this 5th grade football drill or not.
However, if he had wanted to play, if playing football were one of his goals, then fear and uncertainty would have caused him to miss out on an opportunity that day. He had chosen the path of least resistance – a path he could control.
Which brings us back to the road we travel as Christians. Most of us are great “Smooth Road” Christians. When there is a smooth road under our feet, we are all in.
We get lulled into a false sense of security and begin to think that the road will always be smooth. We know better than that; we know there will be difficult stretches of road, but “out of sight, out of mind.”
Then the time will come when our faith is challenged, the road is no longer smooth: A young person dies an untimely death. A loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Our relationship with our spouse or our children is strained. There are lay-offs and budget cuts at work. There is more and more violence in our city, our country, and around the world.
We have always insisted that our faith is important to us, and it has always been a source of strength; but our faith is shaken by these difficult circumstances. We reach the point that Luke was writing about when Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
We were all in when the road was smooth. When we hit a rough patch, fear and uncertainty creep in. The idea of carrying a cross is not too appealing and the path of least resistance becomes tempting.
We are literally at a crossroads. We can take up our cross, or we can allow fear and uncertainty to get the best of us. Is our faith really worth it? What if I get hurt? How can carrying this cross possibly make me stronger? Maybe my faith is not that important to me, maybe I can draw strength from something else or someone else.
Rather than being all in, we question whether we are in at all.
When you come to that crossroads, and all those questions are swirling around in your head, it may seem complicated. In the movie, God’s Not Dead, we hear these words: “Staying true to your faith isn’t easy, but it is simple.”
It isn’t easy, but it is simple.
Either you’re in or you’re not. You believe or you don’t. You trust or you don’t. You’re willing to relinquish control or you’re not. You are either a part of Jesus’ new marketing team or you’re not.
I am not saying that we cannot ever question God’s plan or have periods of doubt, but we need to wrestle with those struggles while carrying our cross.
When your faith is challenged, are you going to take up your cross and follow Him? Or are you going to stand off to the side, with your helmet under your arm?