Sermon for Sunday, September 12, 2021 || Proper 19A || Mark 8:27-38
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 boots 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 red bandanna and dark leather chaps and keeps his Colt .45 slung low on 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 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 their own life? The problem here, of course, is that such control is always a delusion of grandeur, and one we fall for all the time. We fall for this delusional vision of control because of the peculiarly American myth of rugged individualism. This myth is reinforced by the westerns I used to introduce this sermon and by rags to riches stories and especially by a particularly emaciated understanding of freedom as simple self-determination without communal responsibility.
The myth of rugged individualism is destructive because it mischaracterizes how a society functions when we are at our best. And let me be clear: a healthy self-image is good, self-esteem is good, personal agency and bodily autonomy are good. That’s not what I’m talking about. We live in a web of interconnected relationships so vast and complicated that no one could ever catalogue it. But while the web cannot be catalogued, the emaciated understanding of freedom can unravel it. In our society right now, we are seeing the destructive effects of this unraveling as the covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, despite an effective vaccine and a public health consensus on the best mitigation strategies.
The question comes down to how we view the “self.” Do we define the “self” in opposition to the other? That is, “I understand who I am by knowing I am not you.” Or do we define the “self” in harmony with the other? That is, “I understand who I am because I know who we are together.” The oppositional view leads to a rejection of the web of relationships in times of crisis, while the harmonious view leads to an embrace of the web of relationships. The oppositional view seeks to preserve the self in isolation, while the harmonious view seeks to preserve the community, which by extension also preserves the self. The oppositional view seeks control, while the harmonious view seeks collaboration.
The typical outlaw in the western embodies the oppositional view of self. He is a purely self-interested chaotic force: robbing stagecoaches, stealing horses, threatening towns to pay up if they know what’s good for ’em. This is the self that Jesus bids us to deny when we follow him. And make no mistake, no matter how community-oriented we are, every one of us has this self inside us. This self-interested mode of being is how we survived as babies. We carry it with us throughout our lives, and myths like rugged individualism and the delusion of control cause the self-interested mode of being to rear its ugly head.
But we also have the other view of self inside us, the harmonious one. This is the self that Jesus invites us to embrace when he bids us lose our lives for the sake of the gospel. This is the self Jesus embraced when he went to the cross instead of abandoning his mission of healing and reconciliation. This is the self we embrace when we gather together as the Body of Christ. This is the self we inhabit when we use our freedom, as St. Paul says, not as an “opportunity to indulge [our] selfish impulses, but [to] serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).
Jesus knows the purely self-interested self is always ready to jump into the driver’s seat, especially in times of stress and crisis. It is to this outlaw self that 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 Colts, too bewildered by his behavior to draw and start firing. When he reaches us, he takes the weapon from our belts, empties the bullets, and pulls the bandanna away from our faces. Then, with his arms once again outstretched as on the cross, he beckons us to him. He calls us to take one step toward him and embrace his life, the one that he gave up for the good of all creation.
Surrendering our outlaw lives of the oppositional self and living Christ’s life of the harmonious self 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 through the web of interconnected relationships. To share in suffering means to have compassion, because compassion is to suffer with, to suffer together. And in this togetherness, we help alleviate the suffering. The good news is this: When we allow Christ to live in us, we are never alone, both because Christ is alive within and also because we start addressing the world from a desire for community. And when we do that, everything changes – from what we care about to how we make decisions to what motivates us to live a life of love and services.
High noon passes, and the shootout ends without a shot fired. For Jesus was never there to duel, but to bring us back into right relationship with God, with creation, with each other, and within our own selves. Look inside yourselves right now, and rejoice that Christ is alive in us.
Note: I wrote the intro to this sermon in 2012, but the body is completely different from the 2012 version.
Season 4, Episode 2
“I Know Your Name”
The Podcast for Nerdy Christians returns for our fourth season, and we’re back with a new tagline: “Where faith meets fandom.” This episode, we’re talking naming and mission in Moana and a few other properties. We’ll also tackle some chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Join hosts and Episcopal priests Carrie Combs and Adam Thomas for this podcast for progressive Christians who love Hogwarts, Hobbits, Jedi, and Jesus.