Guest Preacher - Bill Nesbitt
Surprise! Things look different from over here. I am used to being there, or back there. This is definitely a different perspective, and I must admit a somewhat intimidating one.
I appreciate the opportunity Arianne has given me to speak today. I now have an entirely new understanding of what it takes to prepare to speak from this side. I have spent a lot of time reading and rereading this gospel lesson. There is a lot to this passage from Mark.
First, Peter – and presumably the other Disciples as well – are blown away by what Jesus has just told them about what would happen to him. Not only won’t Peter believe it, he actually “rebukes” Jesus for telling his followers what they all refuse to accept. None of what Jesus foretold of his rejection, betrayal, torture, and brutal death on the cross was remotely conceivable to him. Peter had his mind set on what he thought was supposed to happen – and what he thought SHOULD happen. He, and probably the rest of the Disciples as well, were operating under the mistaken assumption that Jesus was going to overthrow the establishment and rise to a position of great power and prominence – and then live gloriously and happily ever after.
When Jesus told Peter and the other disciples the cold, hard truth, Peter simply didn’t want to hear it. It was not part of his plan. So – Peter gets angry and snaps back at Jesus. Why? Denial. Disappointment. Fear. All reactions based on Peter’s inability to accept the inevitable, difficult truth and to see the bigger picture. Then, just to make it worse, Jesus turns right around and lets Peter have it for “setting his mind on human things” before gathering a larger crowd and expanding even further. He tells the gathered group that only self-denial, unremitting sacrifice, and total and complete reliance on God would lead to their ultimate salvation – while professing that many of them would, like him, have to suffer many, and perhaps the ultimate, human sacrifice to get it.
Wow. Imagine what Peter must have felt at that moment. His entire world was turned completely upside down. He lashed out at Jesus, in effect wanting to blame the messenger for delivering the message. In that moment he could not begin to accept what he had heard, neither about the fate of Jesus nor about the possible outcomes for him and his friends the other Disciples.
So – I started to ask myself…..as I reread this lesson fifty or so times…how many times have I had my best laid plans upset? When something happens in my life that is unexpected, and especially if that thing impacts how I think things SHOULD be or, worse yet, that may impact me in a way that I perceive as negative, how do I tend to react? If I am honest with myself, I usually react from a place of fear rather than from a place of faith. Like Peter, my first response is often denial – usually closely followed closely by anger. However, fear is always the underlying emotion.
One of my favorite prayers is the well-known Serenity Payer of Reinhold Niebuhr. Most people are very familiar with the first stanza:
God, grant me the Serenity To accept the things I cannot change... Courage to change the things I can, And Wisdom to know the difference.
I say this prayer many times a day.
Many of you know that I am in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, and that I have been sober for several decades now. Part of what held me captive in my addiction for so long was my inability to accept life on life’s terms and to understand that control of any kind, especially over people, places, and things, is an illusion. My reaction when things didn’t go my way always came from a place of resentment and fear.
A big part of my recovery program from my addictions includes the identification of “character defects” that I need to address to achieve and maintain a long term, productive recovery. Through that process I identified self-centered fear – the fear of losing what I have or not getting what I think I want or deserve, as being at the top of my list.
Before I got sober I regularly fell into the trap of having unrealistic expectations that simply couldn’t be met – and the result was invariably frustration, anxiety, and anger. None of this served me - or anyone I came in contact with - in any positive way whatsoever. I have learned, often the hard way, that acceptance is the key to all of my problems today. I seek peace and serenity in my life. My level of serenity, which I define as feeling at peace, relatively free from anxiety, and to be of maximum service to others - is directly related to the quality of my spiritual connection with God - and to my level of acceptance that everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be in this moment. That level of serenity is also inversely related to my ability to let go of expectations – both of myself and of others.
It has become clear to me over the years, often as a result of making lots and lots of mistakes, that my way usually does not work, and that often what I think is good for me isn’t. When I can effectively release my stranglehold on things and simply turn things over to God, giving up all preconceived notions of how I think things are supposed to turn out, I am in good spiritual condition and can live relatively happily. It is then, and only then, that I feel freed from the issues that tend to torment me and in a place of relative peace and contentment. For me, a life driven by self-will can never be a peaceful or fulfilling one.
So, when I hear Jesus say “deny yourself and follow me” I hear him encouraging me to “ask for the knowledge of God’s will for me” and to let go of my preconceived notions. When I pray for this knowledge I may not like the answer I get, or I may not get any answer at all. God gave humans self-will for a reason. The key question is how do I choose to use it? I have discovered that I need to strive on a daily basis to apply my self-will in ways that I believe are in alignment with God’s will for me. Only then can I achieve the serenity Niebuhr references in his prayer.
Now – back to today’s gospel lesson. Peter, and presumably the other Disciples, have a really hard pill to swallow. Again, Jesus urges them to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. Not temporarily, but for good. He was asking for a full commitment for the remainder of their lives. Half measures would not work.
I need to remember this in my daily life. With each new day I need to remind myself that it’s God’s way, not mine, and that the way to salvation IS to follow Jesus and the will of God.
Most people know the first stanza of the Serenity Payer that I read earlier. I would like to close with the rest of that prayer:
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will. That I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.