(Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2012 || Lent 2B || Mark 8:31-38 )
I’m sure we’ve all watched this scene unfold in a film, a Western, perhaps starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper. The sheriff checks the rounds in his six-shooter, puts on his Stetson and shiny, star-shaped badge, and walks bowlegged out of his tin-roofed station. His spurs clink as he walks, and his shoes kick up the dust of the main street running through town. At the same time, the batwing doors of the saloon swing outward, and the gun-slinging outlaw swaggers down the steps into the street. The outlaw wears a black bandana and black chaps and keeps his Colt .45 slung low in his hip, the better to draw quickly. They face each other at high noon out on the street. They are alone, though the whole town is watching from windows and roofs. A tumbleweed skitters across the road between them. There are no shadows. And the sheriff says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
With these words, the sheriff gives the outlaw the chance to turn himself in or to leave town before the inevitable shootout. But the shootout is inevitable for two reasons: first, the movie-going public would be disappointed in a Western without a shootout; and second, the outlaw’s very nature and personality won’t let him go quietly. If today’s Gospel reading were staged as a Western, you and I would be cast as the outlaw. And a Stetson-wearing Jesus would be the sheriff, who says to us, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
But Jesus wouldn’t be talking about a town. He would be talking about us, about our souls, about our lives. “This life ain’t big enough for the both of us” is the Western film version of what Jesus actually says: “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, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”
With these words, Jesus gives us the same choice that the sheriff gives the outlaw. We can surrender ourselves to Christ or we can fight in an attempt to keep control of our lives. We cannot, however, do both.
At first glance, the second option seems quite appealing. Who wouldn’t want to remain in control of his or her own life? Is that not the American dream – self-determination, self-preservation, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps? Do we Americans not prize the entrepreneur, the independent thinker, the individual who defies the odds to become someone? Of course we do. In and of themselves, these things are not bad. But they can lead us down some wrong paths.
Let’s take self-preservation, for example. As infants, this is the only thought in our little brains. We cry whenever we perceive that something is being withheld that will help us thrive. We are incapable of taking care of ourselves on our own, so we induce through love and tears others to take care of us. At this stage of our life, self-preservation is not a choice. Keeping ourselves going is a hardwired imperative of our biology. As we grow up and become more self-sustaining, the affinity for self-preservation that we displayed as infants stays with us. The biological imperative keeps us seeking things that will help us survive.
Again, this is not a bad thing at all. The problems begin when the “self” we are trying to preserve starts wandering away from those life-giving things that helped us thrive as infants. Some of those life-giving things – such as family and love – can remain throughout our lives, but other, life-taking things can crowd them out. In middle school, we define ourselves based on the insecure input of our peers and the warped input of the consumer culture. In young adult life, we define ourselves based on our (never quite good enough) physical attractiveness to prospective mates. In adult life, we define ourselves based on our work and our need to be comfortable.
When these definitions lead us down life-taking paths, we humans have a tendency to follow such paths to the extreme. We become addicted to alcohol or drugs or gambling or video games. We pursue what marketing experts define as success. We take on the lone wolf persona, ignoring the welfare of others because we perceive that we are not faring well enough ourselves. Pretty soon, the selves that we have become look so very little like the selves that God created us to be.
The farther down the life-taking paths we go, the deeper the need to preserve these false selves becomes. We know no other way to live. We have no idea what another path would like, and the unknown is the scariest reality of all. So we cling hard. We preserve these so-called lives. And we become outlaws in our own bodies, betrayers of the abundant life that God desires for each of us.
To these outlaws, Jesus says, “This life ain’t big enough for the both of us.” But instead of drawing his six-shooter like the sheriff, Jesus unbuckles his holster and lets the belt drop into the dust. He spreads his arms wide and starts walking toward us. We keep our hands on the hilts of our guns, too bewildered by his behavior to draw and start firing. When he reaches us, he takes the gun from our belts, empties the bullets, and pulls the bandana away from our faces. Then, with his arms once again outstretched as on a cross, he beckons us to him. He calls to us to take one step toward him, one step down a new life-giving path, one step that will find us close enough for his arms to embrace us.
And in that embrace, our need to preserve those false selves starts fighting. But our gun is in the dust. Our arms are pinned to our sides. The only thing left to us is to surrender those false selves into Christ’s care and to begin to let Christ’s life replace the half-lives we were leading. In the embrace, Jesus leans close and whispers, “If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and follow me.”
And so we deny the false selves that we have become, the small, scared people who stubbornly walked down the wrong paths. We lose the half-life we had because we stopped trying to save this old life. And instead, we take on Christ’s life. We step into the life of Christ as Paul says to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
As Christ lives in us, there is no room for the old life to hold sway. This life just ain’t big enough for the both of them. But Christ’s life is big enough to encompass and redeem the old life. The new paths we tread don’t start out new, but as the old, life-taking paths we followed. We just travel them in the opposite direction. And as we journey back up the life-taking path, Christ gives us the opportunity to repair and reconcile with those we’ve hurt and to reject and abandon the system that defines self with stuff. As Christ’s life takes hold in us, we find that this new life is worth preserving, and not only preserving, but rejoicing in and sharing with others.
Surrendering our outlaw lives and living Christ’s life is not easy. That’s why Jesus uses the imagery of the cross – not just because of his own impending execution, but because the cross is a symbol for suffering. Living Christ’s life means sharing in the suffering of the world, and also working to change the world to alleviate some of the suffering. But the good news is this. When we no longer live to preserve our false selves, but allow Christ to live in us, then we are never alone. We never have to face the joys and sorrows of this life alone. We never have to encounter suffering alone. The shootout ended without a shot fired. Our false selves are dead. And Christ is alive in us.