by Carrie Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.
It is only Thursday of the first week of school, and I am already exhausted. Looking around at your faces, I can see that many of you are feeling the same way. But I have to tell you I've had more sleep this week, and I feel more rested, than I did just a few weeks ago when I was staying up until midnight, 1 even 2 in the morning...to watch the Olympics.
Shawn Johnson, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt: I was captivated by their heart-warming stories, by the world records being broken, and especially by the piles of gold medals they won. I found myself awake in the middle of the night watching synchronized underwater basket-weaving or something like it, wondering why I was even watching, but I knew the answer. I was watching because the lure of winning is so powerful.
In fact, watching winners is exciting, but it's even better to be a winner, isn't it?
Think back to the Olympics you watched when you were kids. Can you remember how the next time you got on your bike, or ran to a friend's house, how you were transported in your mind to some future Olympic games when you, too, would be crossing that finish line and grabbing the gold medal?
The lure of winning is so powerful that even as I was preparing this sermon, I found myself thinking back to the stunning sermons I heard last spring at the LSTC preaching competition. Soon I was caught up comparing my own homiletic skills with those of my former classmates. And then I transported myself to some future preaching competition, when I, too might be a winner... After all, it may not be the Olympics of preaching, but in our seminary world, it's pretty close!
But this sort of thinking, this "winner worship", is pretty ironic considering the texts I was supposed to be working with for today. It's true that we all love winners-we love to watch winners, and we like to be winners-which is why it is so hard for us to hear the words Jesus has for the disciples in Matthew chapter 16.
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."
That's right: Jesus calls us to be losers.
No one wants to be a loser. And I am conscious today of the fact that among us are those who have lost many things recently: a spouse, a colleague, health, or even one's dignity in the face of oppression. This week I'm particularly conscious of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who have once again become losers-losers whom our country has historically ignored.
No one wants to be a loser--But then what do we do with Jesus' message that those who want to follow him must become losers? And not just any losers, but the biggest losers-those who want to follow Jesus are called to lose their very lives.
It is easy to take these words from Jesus as merely figurative, or to water them down in some way. Or, you might choose to ignore them completely, as I was heartily tempted to do when I looked at the appointed readings for today.
If you choose to ignore them, you might instead listen to one of any number of popular television preachers, who will tell you that on the contrary, Jesus wants you to be a winner! Jesus wants you to be happy and prosperous and successful and the Bible even shows you how to do it! You have the power to make it happen! You just need to try harder, run a little closer behind Jesus, carry the cross a little better...and then the gold medal of discipleship can be yours.
Well, I wonder if these preachers have ever read Matthew 16, because there it is pretty clear that the Bible is not a self-help book-it is a lose yourself book.
Now in case you were wondering what it does look like to follow Jesus, you will want to know that the Romans 12 passage which you heard today is helpfully subtitled in my Bible as "the Marks of a True Christian."
The problem is, if these "marks of a true Christian" are taken as a list of required elements to be performed in order to earn a enough points, which will earn you the gold medal of discipleship...then I'm afraid I'm not winning any medals at all. And I start to wonder if I know any "true Christians" at all.
But what if the "marks of a true Christian" are not a recipe for success, outlining the way to win the gold medal of discipleship, but are rather an example of just what it might look like to lose your life in order to find it.
Now stick with me here:
You will lose friends when you reject what you know to be evil and cling to what you know to be good.
You will lose face when you choose not to repay evil with evil, but instead leave vengeance to the Lord.
You will certainly lose part of your heart when you weep with those who weep, as anyone who has been through CPE or internship can tell you.
You will lose your pride when you associate with the lowly, bless those who persecute you, and outdo one another in honor-even those who dishonor you.
Yes, you will lose many things, but remember that Paul said in Romans 12:2 we are not to be conformed to this world, this "winner's culture", but to be transformed into the kinds of losers Jesus is looking for: those who will lose their very lives for his sake.
Friends, you are not called to the winner's circle but to the loser's bench. You are called to pick up the cross and follow Jesus to the place where you lose the things you thought you cared about. As a follower of Jesus you are called to associate with the lowly, to sit with those who weep, and to hang out with your enemies, none of which will earn you gold medals or product endorsements.
If you do win any positive praise for picking up your cross and following Jesus, it's likely to be in the form of misguided sentimentality. I am quite sure that more than a few of the first year students here were told as they left their home churches: "What a nice thing you're doing. What a nice young man you are. You are such a good Christian."
Well, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker communities, was once told that her community's acts of radical hospitality and pacifism were just "nice".
When others sympathized with her "sentimentality," Day replied: "This is a charge always leveled against us. We are supposed to be afraid of the suffering, of hard-ships. But let those who talk of softness, of sentimentality, come to live with us in cold, unheated houses in the slums. Let them come to live with the criminal, the unbalanced, the drunken, the degraded, the pervert."
In other words, if you think following Jesus is sentimentality...just try it sometime. It ain't all incense and pretty church buildings. It certainly isn't all clergy shirts and new hymnals and theological conferences...and preaching competitions.
So why do we come to seminary anyway? Why do you persist in daily picking up the many crosses in the world and following Jesus... to death? How can you persevere in honoring the other, ushering in the kingdom, advocating for the voiceless, and speaking truth to power even when it means stepping outside the winner's circle and instead living as the biggest losers?
We can keep on keeping on because we aren't trying to win. We can keep on keeping on because we know that Jesus has already won the gold medal for us. ...At least, I think we know that: sometimes, seminarians, I wonder if we think we can outdo Jesus! As far as I know, there is no Olympic event for cross-carrying, but friends, if there were, Jesus has already crossed that finish line and has already taken the gold medal spot on the winner's podium called Calvary.
You simply aren't going to do it. You don't need to be a winner in the world's eyes, "For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit your life?" You are already winners through the love of God in Christ Jesus. You can confidently say "Hey, I might be sitting here with a bunch of losers...but today I know that Victory is Mine!"
You have this promise: that though you may not win glory or gratitude or gold medals in this world by following Jesus, Jesus has already won for you a golden crown and a place in your Father's house.
The Lord be with you.
Matthew 16: 24-25