All In

[special_heading title=”All In” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]Convenience decides everything, according to Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, touting the latest technological advance.  He’s right of course, in large part because it’s more efficient and easier and opens up time we can choose to spend in other pursuits.  So we have one-click, one-stop shopping, increasingly speedier Internet options, entire seasons of our favorite TV show to binge-watch, and fast-food, take-out, and Blue Apron-style meal kit options.  While no one wants to erase “convenience” as a liberating value, a NY Times article last week made me think a little deeper.  In The Tyranny of Convenience, author Tim Wu writes that convenience fails to acknowledge the struggles and challenges that help create meaning to life.  By minimizing the mental resources and exertion required to choose among options whereby we express ourselves, convenience may actually promote conformity and egotism, and dull a sense of community and originality.   I want what I want when I want it.  And conveniently, I can get it.  Wu suggests it’s a fake victory: like driving up Pikes Peak instead of hiking it.  Convenience is all destination and no journey.   [NY Times, February 16, 2018]

What a contrast to the Olympic athletes we watched in wonder these past two weeks!  Women and men who have given years and made significant sacrifices to compete on the world stage.   Each forfeited convenience for intense, focused physical and psychological training.  Building base strength and cardiovascular stamina.  Figuring out how to pay for coaching and equipment and travel.  Balancing single-minded devotion with the multiple demands of family, school, and work.  Addressing anxiety, the pressure of expectation and return on investment.  Their stories are different, with one underlying similarity: the road to PyeongChang was a journey that required they be “all in,” with no guarantee of success beyond the reality of simply being there.

Today’s Scripture text proclaims an inconvenient truth, calling us to a journey of Olympian proportion.  I’m pretty sure it’s not on anyone’s “favorite Bible verse” list, because, frankly, it makes Christian faith sound difficult and counter to our notions of what constitutes the good life.  But could it in fact be a reminder of the tyranny of convenience?   That what we prefer is not always what is best or even right?   Could it be a challenge to the self-designed faith that demands little of us and actually misses what’s most essential?  A reading from Mark in the eighth chapter at the thirty-first verse.  Listen for God’s Word to the church.  [Mark 8:31-38]

Why does Jesus get so angry at Peter at the beginning of this text?  Peter—the one Jesus named “the Rock.”  Peter—who just moments before had identified Jesus as the Messiah, the long-promised savior of God’s people, the first of the disciples to do so.  Here he’s expressing concern about this ugly talk of rejection and suffering and death, and Jesus publicly calls him out, using the worst name you can imagine.  Hardly the loving response that better fits our picture of the Good Shepherd.

This was the first time Jesus had spoken of these negative things.  Up until then, his ministry had been about dramatic healing, powerful preaching, amazing miracles, and radical acceptance of the outsider and sinner.  The people loved it.  Here at last is the messiah they’d been waiting for.  And Peter? — well he was perfectly positioned as Jesus’ right-hand man, part of the inner circle.  No wonder he tried to squelch this Debbie Downer talk.  Nobody wants to hear about rejection and suffering for God’s sake.   And if this was a forecast of Jesus’ future, what about his own???

The sunny path ahead suddenly clouded over and this One for whom he’d left everything suddenly turns on him.  Get behind me, Satan!

It may help us understand better if we remember that the Hebrew word for Satan is not synonymous with devil, nor is it a name for the Prince of Hell.  Instead, “satan” means an adversary.   Jesus isn’t calling Peter the epitome of evil, but his adversary, the opposition.  Peter is standing between Jesus and God’s plan; he’s asking Jesus to take an easier way based on Peter’s notion of a successful messiah who could bypass the conflict and the cross and cut right to the Hallelujah Chorus.  Perhaps Jesus himself was tempted by Peter’s plea, and his sharp retort was as much for himself as it was for Peter.  Even at the end, on the night he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus prayed to have this cup pass him by.  He stayed the course then, as he did with Peter here.  The way of the cross reveals a God beyond human expectation, who goes to the depths of human suffering to redeem it.  To transform it into something true and beautiful.  When tempted to stay out of trouble, Jesus chose instead to stay faithful to his calling.  He walked the lonesome valley and lost his life … and found resurrection.

But that was later.  On this day, he resisted an adversary who tried to keep him from being the person God had called him to be.  And then he put the question to the others.   If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross, and join me.  Please know what you are choosing.  It will be difficult.  It will call forth the very best in you.  It will take practice and pain and maybe even your life.  But in the process you will find real life.

I hear echoes of that question in the decision to commit oneself to a far-off goal or to work towards a long-sought dream.  If you train and practice and devote yourself to your skill, one day you may become an Olympic athlete.  It will take much sacrifice, painful endurance, and you may never get the gold or any medal … but it will be worth it.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  You’ve heard the name as the school in Parkland, Florida, heartbreaking scene of another school shooting.  The woman for whom the school was named is a story herself.  A writer and fighter.  Born before women had the right to vote, she championed women’s suffrage and campaigned for civil rights.  She fought for decent plumbing in Miami’s poor, Black neighborhoods and worked on behalf of migrant workers.  And always, along with everything else, she crusaded to protect the Everglades from being developed.  For decades she battled government, business interests, and the apathy of fellow citizens.  People rolled their eyes when they saw her coming.  Her persistence outlasted the opposition, and finally persuaded the State of Florida to preserve these unique natural wetlands and establish Everglades National Park.   Her own words at the end of her long life offer hope when the road is long, the cross is heavy, and the goal is still in the distance.  Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption, and bad politics.  But never give up.  [columnist Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2018]   Makes you wonder if her legacy is, even now, evident in the voices of the high school students who will not be silenced in their quest to end gun violence despite powerful adversaries.

Friends, is faith an enterprise to which we will give our lives?   The question confronts the church today.  Will you and I resist the tyranny of convenience and take up our cross to follow Jesus?  The self-denial it requires is not self-negation or self-loathing.  It is letting go of ourselves as the center of the universe and seeing God there instead.   It is following in the footsteps of Jesus who chose to give in a world that seeks to acquire; who trusted God’s abundance when others feared there was not enough; who loved in a world that hates; who offered mercy instead of vengeance; and forgiveness in a world that judges [from Working Preacher, online blog, Lent 2015].  It is to lead a life of purpose shaped by love of God and love of neighbor.  It is to commit oneself, body and soul, time, talent, and treasure to the Rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It is to be all in.  It is, dear brothers and sisters, to be alive.