(Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2012 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38)
I put the guitar down on the wooden bench, dropped my right knee to the root-strewn ground, and produced the ring from my pocket. The green light that shone through the trees of the outdoor chapel glinted off the diamond and sapphires, a perfect analog for the light that I felt sure was bursting from my own chest. The last words of the song I had just finished singing clung to the hot, humid, late-July air and surrounded us with the most important question I have ever asked: “Leah, darling, will you marry me?” She nodded her head once, unable to find her voice. Then, after an eternal moment during which I could feel in the depths of my soul the momentum of our entire lives converging on that one point in time, she whispered the single word I longed to hear: “Yes.” My hand trembled so much that I had trouble finding her finger with the ring. And as we embraced, I realized something profound – profound and wonderful. I realized that I was no longer the main character in my own life.
For the first 27½ years of my existence, my chief concern, whether I acknowledged it or not, was me. I was Numero Uno, first in line, the Big Cheese. I was in the spotlight. Sure, I lived my life with a dollop of self-sacrifice, of serving the other at my own cost, but this behavior was much more garnish than entree. I was the main character of my life: the rest of the cast never really could rival me for my own attention. Then I met Leah and everything changed. Suddenly, not only did I desire to share the spotlight, I would have been excited to give the prime spot to her alone. A whole new world of service opened up to me that I don’t think I was ever aware of before. When we came together as a couple, I finally understood the joys of self-sacrificial love.
Looking back on those days two years ago, I chuckle at God’s sense of humor and rejoice in God’s providence. I can just hear God the Father saying to God the Son: “You know that Adam Thomas fellow? He’s my beloved child, he’s even a priest of the Church, but he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand your words, Son, when you said to your friends: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ”
“You know what we should do?” says God the Son. “We should get him to Massachusetts so he can meet Leah Johnson. I think she will clue him in.”
You see, I spent 27½ years – that’s 93.2% of my life, by the way – trying to have my cake and eat it to. I tried to follow Jesus and remain the main character in my own life. But Jesus’ words and his own self-sacrificial love show us a different way.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We Americans are programmed to cringe at the thought of “denying ourselves.” We want giant SUVs that have great fuel economy. We want the beer to taste great and be less filling. We want to treat ourselves to chocolate desserts that don’t have any calories. We want to pursue our happiness, and we don’t seem to mind advertisers telling us just what our happiness should look like. These marketers know they will rake in so much more money if they continue convincing us that being the main characters of our own lives is the best way to live.
Until I met Leah, I bought into the hype. I’ll let you in on a secret: when I was in elementary school, my parents sent me to a session or two of therapy because of how awfully and brutally I insisted on getting my own way. The temper tantrums I threw if we didn’t go to the restaurant I wanted to go to were the stuff of legend. One of these tantrums happened on my mother’s birthday. While that behavior faded as I got older, I still succumb all too often to our me-first consumer culture. I’d be willing to bet that you do to.
But when we deny ourselves and stop striving to be the main characters, we no longer feel shortchanged when Jesus spins the spotlight away from us and shines the light on others. These others are always the ones that Jesus desires us to see: the ones who seem to us to be the ensemble, those brought in just to fill out the cast, the extras. In our film, these extras are those who have no roof over their heads or who have no money for food or who lay in the nursing home with no one to visit them. But in God’s film, these extras are the stars. When we insist that the spotlight stay on us, these others remain in the shadows, too unimportant to garner any attention. But when we follow Jesus Christ as he yearns for us to, we let go of our stranglehold on the spotlight and finally see those whom he would have us see.
And when we see in this way, when we notice those outside our own spotlights, something happens that the advertisers and marketing directors never prepared us for. We discover a latent desire that Jesus’ words planted within us when we were looking the other way. We discover the desire to be generous and welcoming to those who never enjoy the spotlight. We look the ensemble cast members in the eye and realize that we want to know their names and where they grew up and what their hopes and dreams for the future are. We turn out our pockets and volunteer our time and invite the stranger to become friend because by doing so we notice clearly the footsteps of Christ walking one step before us. We feel the life of Christ welling up from within us and connecting with the life of Christ welling up from within the other, who now shines in the spotlight.
Jesus Christ is always walking one step before us, but we don’t always walk one step behind him. We stray, we go off on our own, we set up camp rather than continue following. But even with all of our wilderness wanderings and our prima donna tendencies, he continues to stay one step away, calling us back to his path. His path is hard: the way of denial, of self-sacrifice, of cross-carrying. But his path is also the way of true joy.
When we walk down Jesus’ path, the spotlight is never on us, but on those around us, those walking with us. Now that God has blessed me with a partner to remind me that I am not the main character of my life, I have crept slowly and haltingly onto this path and found the joy of stepping out of the spotlight, the joy of generosity and welcoming and service. Perhaps you have, too. Perhaps, as we turn the spotlight on each other and on those Jesus would have us see, together we will notice, there marking the ground in front of us, the footsteps of Jesus Christ.