Splinters | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 19 and Mark 8:27-38 – 9/13/15

Sermon audio

There’s a very popular video on YouTube called The Dancing Guy. It was shot at the Sasquatch Music Festival in 2009. At the beginning of this 3-minute video is one, lone, solitary dancer out in a field off by himself, making all these erratic movements with his body. He’s half-clothed and making a fool of himself. There’s no sense to the way he’s dancing. There are people sitting around this dancing guy, staring at him like he’s crazy. He’s the lone nut doing his own thing out in middle of a field, and everyone’s doing their best to ignore him.

But then something happens. Another guy runs up into the shot and joins the crazy guy in his dance. This second guy follows the lead of the first guy; he imitates the first guy’s dance with his own non-sense movements. The two of them dance together in the middle of this field. The first guy acknowledges and welcomes this new partner of his. He embraces the second guy, dances with him—enfolding him into the dance. See, if the first guy is the flint, then the second guy is the spark.

And then it happens, the dance catches fire. A third guy enters the picture and starts dancing with the other two. No longer is it just one nut job dancing on his own, or two crazy guys dancing together. Now, three’s a crowd. Then here come 2 more people, then 3 more, and within a mere 30 seconds, about 70 folks from all around get up and join the dance. Now it’s a movement. The leader of the dance—that lone, half-naked nut job—is in the crowd somewhere, but we can’t see him because he’s lost in a sea of people who have joined him in the dance movement that he created.

You might say the leader is the one who sparked the dance craze on that field that day. But here’s the thing: the dance movement he created would have never happened at all if it wasn’t for that first follower. If it wasn’t for that first guy with the guts to get up and dance along with this lone, crazy guy, none of it would have taken place at all. It takes nerve to dance on your own, but it might take even more nerve to join someone in their dance—to become the first follower. The first follower braves being ridiculed for joining the first guy in his dance.

The first follower is an unappreciated role. A first follower turns a lone nut into a leader. And when new followers come along, they don’t so much emulate the leader as much as they emulate the first follower. Then when even more followers come along, they emulate the followers who entered the dance just before they did.

And that’s how a movement is born. Every new movement needs a brave leader, but even more crucial to a movement is the first follower, who’s willing to join up when no one else will—who risks being seen as a fool for imitating the leader, and who makes it safe for others to become a part of the dance.

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This sort of pattern of leading and following happens all the time, every day. The greatest movements in history—from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement—happened like this.

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About a dozen years ago, there was an article in the New York Times of a theft that took place at a Midtown Manhattan Catholic church. The thieves broke into the church and made off with Jesus. Nothing else from the church was missing—just the Jesus figure that was at the front of the sanctuary.

The peculiar thing though, is the thieves took Jesus but not the cross he was on. They actually took the time to unbolt Jesus from his cross in four different places, and they left the cross behind!

The pastor was baffled. The Jesus figurine was made of steel—not anything too expensive that anyone could sell for drugs.

Why steal a 200-pound Jesus figurine from a church? And why take Jesus but not his cross? It’s a whole lot easier to take Jesus without his cross. Jesus offers us comfort and love and assurance and blessing. But His cross…his cross is too much for us. It’s costly. We don’t want it. We’d rather not take it.

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Peter didn’t want the cross either. Just like us, Peter likes the Christ but not the cross. Peter confronts Jesus. Just after Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus tells him and the other disciples—the first followers—what the Christ must endure: rejection and then death. This is the first time in Mark’s gospel where Jesus speaks about such things. I imagine Peter taking Jesus by the shoulders and shaking him, saying,

What’s gotten into you?! You’re the Messiah, and Messiahs aren’t supposed to suffer and die, they’re supposed to take over, become political movers and shakers. You’re an important guy, Jesus! There’s a bright future ahead of you! You’re here to succeed, not to fail!

That’s when we hear Jesus strongly reprimand Peter.

Get behind me, Satan!,

Jesus says to him.

Jesus responds to Peter as strongly as he does because what Peter is suggesting here sounds pretty good. It’s a whole lot better than the alternative. Jesus is enticed by Peter’s words to take the route of Superhero Messiah instead of the route that will lead to the cross. Jesus shouts at Peter,

You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.

Human thoughts are the ones that tease us with dreams of becoming successful in the ways of the world. They’re the ones that tell us that there’s a way to win without ever losing. There’s a way to walk throughout our lives completely absorbed in our own story without ever having to worry about what God wants from us. But Jesus says that’s not the way. We can’t have Jesus unless we’re also willing to take his cross.

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There’s a story later in the Gospel according to Mark, and if we blink, we’ll miss it. It’s only one verse long:

Simon, a man from Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus’ father, was coming in from the countryside. [The Roman soldiers] forced him to carry Jesus’ cross.

When Jesus couldn’t handle the weight of the cross, Simon was the one who carried the burden for him. The marks of Jesus’ cross were upon Simon’s shoulders. This one small sentence from scripture holds so much in it. It contains worlds. In it is an invitation addressed to eachof us. What would it be like to carry the cross of Jesus? Simon of Cyrene is a place-marker for all of us. He holds the space in the Jesus story that each of us should assume for ourselves, because Jesus tells us that to be his disciple we must also be cross-bearers. The good news here is that we don’t have to carry the same cross Jesus did. Jesus bore the wooden cross well enough the first time. What he did on the cross was done once and for all. Our task is not to become martyrs. The world doesn’t need another one of those. Still though, Jesus asks us to take up our own cross and to follow him.

Now, there’s a couple things that taking up our own cross doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean signing up for suffering. It doesn’t mean being less happy. It’s not a contrived kind of humility. We don’t follow Jesus by demeaning, disparaging ourselves, our making ourselves smaller. By inviting us to take up our cross, Jesus isn’t asking us to go small—just the opposite, in fact. He’s asking us to live for larger reasons, to strive for better things than the cheap, old, shallow stuff that the world calls good and then tries to sell to us. Taking up our cross means saying No to all those things that are packaged up and pitched to us as a part of rich and abundant life, but are really only the illusions of it. Taking up our cross means saying No to all that’s comfortable and convenient and conventional, and taking a truer more meaning-filled, albeit, harder path. Taking up our cross and following Jesus means keeping our priorities in line with Jesus’ priorities—by loving God and our neighbors first. The invitation isn’t to deny who you are, it’s to affirm all that God wants you to be—disciples, first followers. To paraphrase pastor Eugene Peterson:

The invitation is to find out who you really are by giving more and more attention to seeking God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.

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The truth of the matter, though, is that when we start living our lives this way, we’re living against the grain of the world. Being first-followers of Jesus means taking the risk of looking foolish to all the onlookers around us. It can open us up to ridicule and uncomfortable stares and cynical speculation from others, each of them like splinters in our hands and on our back as we carry that cross upon our shoulders. None of that is comfortable or convenient. But it is faithful. Living in the Jesus Way is like cutting across the grain. It’s doing all that we do with a completely different motive in mind. We follow a troublemaker who upset the conventional wisdom of his day and chose to love radically instead, even if it did him in. That was the Way.

Jesus was a splinter in the side of the establishment of his day, and we who follow our leader should know that living our life cutting across the grain will give us splinters.

First followers of Jesus live a cross-bearing life. First followers are called to step out and make a fool of ourselves for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the Way of Jesus—each of which cannot be entered into without first risking our reputation, and then hoisting a cross over our shoulder.

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The challenge of walking in the way of Jesus is that we will often find ourselves swimming upstream—running against the tide. But Jesus asks us to stand right where we are anyway. The call of this story upon our lives is a great one. Like the cross, it weighs a great amount. And the journey is not easy. Just ask Simon of Cyrene.

The question this story should have us ask ourselves is this:

Lord, what is my cross today, and where should I carry it?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.