Saving our Lives

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1954, producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster had an enviable problem. Put simply, their movies were too successful. Hecht-Lancaster Productions made so much money 1954 that the studio was concerned about the size of its tax bill come April 15th. They came up with an admittedly creative solution to this predicament. They decided toproduce a movie that was guaranteed to flop, so that the production costs could be written off as a capital loss. In theory, the plan was airtight: Hecht hired a relatively unknown writer to adapt his failed TV script into a full length feature, and Lancaster cast what he described as “two ugly people” in the lead roles. The producers were so confident that the movie would fail that the studio had an accountant on the set specifically charged with ensuring that the production lost enough money. When Marty was released, Hecht and Lancaster were sure that they had accurately understood the moviegoing public, that no one would be interested in watching two ordinary people fall in love.

marty-posterAs you probably know (or have at least guessed), the studio could not have been more wrong. Indeed, Marty was adored by both critics and the public. Not only was it a smash hit, it earned an Academy Award for Best Picture and became only the second American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Marty established Paddy Chayevsky, that unknown screenwriter, as one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood and made Ernest Borgnine, one of those two ugly actors, a household name. As it turns out, audiences found Borgnine and his co-star Betsy Blair far more relatable than typical Hollywood stars. Moreover, they were compelled by the film’s ultimate message: true love really is for anyone. Even though the producers thought they understood the public, their expectations were confounded. Even though their plan was, to their minds, foolproof, things turned out precisely the opposite way they anticipated.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning reminds us that ours is a God who confounds expectations. While Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is an important moment in all the gospels, it is of particular significance in Mark. This is the pivot point of Mark’s gospel: not only is this the moment that the disciples finally recognize Jesus for who he is, it is also the moment that the narrative begins its inexorable progression toward Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem. It’s clear that this is not at all what Peter or any of the other disciples expect. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter sounds supremely confident: “You are the Messiah.” There’s no hesitancy, there’s no equivocation. Peter is sure that Jesus is the anointed successor of David. So it’s no surprise that Peter bristles when Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Mark tells us that Peter rebukes Jesus, presumably saying something to the effect of, “No no no Jesus; you have it all wrong. The Messiah isn’t supposed to die! What’s the matter with you?” Peter cannot imagine that the redemption of God’s people could come through rejection and death. Peter cannot conceive of a God who would reveal himself on a Roman cross. Peter, in other words, cannot fathom the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life.

Needless to say, Peter is not the only one who has had difficulty understanding this paradox. Indeed, Christians have wondered for centuries how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is related to his passion and death. Jesus begins to illuminate this relationship when he says to the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now traditionally, this text is read as a call to martyrdom, a proclamation that Christians must be willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. Those who embrace this reading are continually on the lookout for a cross to bear, a burden that they can ascribe to their discipleship. But this interpretation ignores the fact that Jesus Christ is the one who bears the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world, that he has accomplished something that no one else can. Jesus explains what this is in the very next sentence: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” More than calling his disciples to die for their faith, Jesus is affirming that the more we try to control our lives, the more out of control they will feel. The more we try to maintain our conception of what our life ought to be, the more unable we are to live the life that we have. This statement of Jesus recognizes that when we strive to preserve the life we have at all costs, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have liberated us to appreciate that life is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a gift to be fully experienced.

imgresThis is more than a metaphor. Last year, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and bestselling author, published a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande’s simple, yet powerful thesis is that over the last century, medicine, for all its advances, has failed to prepare people for the reality of death. Too many have ended their lives in agony, undergoing treatments that offer only a sliver’s chance of benefit. In many cases, focusing on survival leads people to forfeit the life they have remaining. To illustrate his point, he cites one study of patients with terminal cancer in which those who went on hospice tended to live longer than those who continued to receive treatment. As he puts it, “the lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.” We might put it another way: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This gospel is profoundly countercultural. We live in an age and in a culture in which acquisition is of paramount importance. Our culture demands that we accumulate in the name of security, that we always think about what to acquire next, that we see everything in our life as a commodity to be collected. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ call us to recognize that when we live our lives this way, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. Rather than preserving our life, our preoccupation with acquisition leads us to squander what is truly important. We are called to let go of those attachments that draw us away from the love of God and live gospel-centered lives. One of the best ways to do this is to be disciplined about focusing on what matters most by making a rule of life that allows us to experience life as a gift. Rules of life can be simple or complex, but they all have the same purpose: to help us stop the endless and ultimately fruitless cycle of striving for whatever comes next. Intentionally making room for God and for what matters most allows us to live our lives more fully than we ever thought possible.