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Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24

Mark 8:31-37

In Denial

My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt about preaching today. I’ve come to this moment kind of dragging my feet, for a variety of reasons. And one of them was that I just did not want to preach on this text. Of course, I didn’t have to - we don’t demand lectionary preaching in chapel. But I just felt like I wanted to preach from the lectionary during Lent. The other texts for today are all about Abraham and Paul’s take on Abraham, and let’s just say those passages were not filling me with inspiration. Briefly, I was imagining a sermon on the Transfiguration text - it is an alternate text for today. But then our wise friend Leah Wandera chose that, appropriately, for Transfiguration last week when it is the primary lectionary choice, and preached a powerful message - you should give it a listen if you missed our online service last week. So here I am, and here we are.   

Truthfully, I’ve always liked this text, and specifically, what I consider the heart of this passage - “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Please don’t tell this to my dissertation committee and give them encouragement to come up with more questions to ask me about my prospectus draft, but I’ve always liked it when things are challenging rather than easy. I mean, easy things have their place, for sure. But I like a challenge, and Jesus’s words are certainly that. Whenever Jesus describes discipleship in ways that seem demanding, I’ve found them motivating rather than discouraging. I like to think that rather than setting the discipleship bar low so we can all just step over it, Jesus sets the bar high and then helps us reach high enough. So, this call to deny one’s self and take up a cross is a challenge I want to rise to meet. What good is easy discipleship? 

But my dear friend Heather, another clergywoman, and now also a Drewid, a DMin student here, has always hated this text. It raises her feminist hackles. Women, she says, are always being asked to deny parts of themselves already. They are always being asked to give up pieces of themselves, to give up parts of themselves for the good of others. She doesn’t need Jesus asking her to do it too, making women denying themselves into an act of religious faithfulness. 

Is that what Jesus means when he asks for self-denial? Sacrificing parts of ourselves? Our contemporary culture, at least in the United States, has tended to interpret self-denial like a second opportunity to make good on New Year’s Resolutions that have failed shortly after January 1st. Lent becomes a kind of season of self-improvement. We can deny ourselves chocolate for Lent and get a two-for-one deal: obeying Jesus, and trimming some excess from our diets and our bodies. Our Lenten journeys become disordered reflections of our disordered views of ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves very much already, and we don’t love our bodies, and we don’t love the skin that we’re in, and we don’t love who we are, perhaps we welcome a chance to deny ourselves - we’re ready to shed the person we are that we’re so ready to and so easily able to find fault with anyway. Deny myself? Yes please! Lent in this way becomes just another promise of new and improved selves that can never meet our hopes. 

If not that, what, then, does Jesus want from us? What is it, exactly, that we need to deny of ourselves, about ourselves? Does self-denial mean stripping ourselves of our individual identities? We’re all one in Christ - we’re disciples, united in cause and purpose - and identity? Is this the self-denial of the way of the cross? This doesn’t fit right either. One of the things I’ve learned at Drew is that denying myself, denying pieces of myself, can actually be a privilege that gives me power over others. I am, to draw on a favorite essay by Donna Haraway, situated. (1) I have a particular perspective. I am White. I am a citizen of the United States. I am a cisgender straight woman. I am a Christian in a Christian-majority nation. I am a middle-class person, even if I’m also taking on the role of broke grad student for a few years. I’ve had access to - let’s be honest - excessive amounts of schooling. I am situated. Is self-denial about denying all the particulars of who we are? Haraway likens that to what she calls the “god trick” - pretending that we have the same all-seeing and all-knowing perspective of the divine being, looking down from on high. Jesus does say we should set our minds on divine things, doesn’t he? Is self-denial about striving for God’s point of view instead of our own? Can we accomplish that through self-denial, and trying to shrug off labels of our particularities? 

In the midst of all of these unappealing ways of denying ourselves before we’ve even gotten to the part about taking up a cross, is there any chance for saving our lives here? I’m pretty sure I remember that in the text somewhere. Losing our lives, yes. But saving them too. That’s in there, right? How do we deny ourselves, lose our lives, and save them all at once? Are there ways that we can understand the call to self-denial that lead to life

As Yeongrok and I were talking about music for chapel today, he said my sermon text made him think of the song The Summons. I almost didn’t include it, but I had been thinking about it too, and the words from John Bell in one of the verses. It’s a question from God to us: “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?” What is the “you” that you’re hiding? 

I think when Jesus talks about self-denial with the disciples - in the particular context of the oppressive state violence that Jesus believed was in his future as a person who kept relentlessing prodding at systems of injustice - I think he’s telling his disciples that they need to lay down their clinging to self-protection, to safety and security, so that they can take on the cross - rather than the sword - with courage, as they face off against Empire. Our particular context is different, of course. But these words call to us all the same. 

What if denying ourselves looks like denying our obsession with individualism? Not as in denying that we are situated, and acknowledging the positionings that sometimes give some of us extraordinary power and place. Rather, maybe denying ourselves looks more like putting away the misguided notion that we are somehow self-contained. Putting away a notion that we are in control, and a contained, boxed-in self that stands alone. Thinking again of our music for today, I’m amazed at the number of Lenten songs that put us in isolation - it’s just me and Jesus in the lonesome valley, doing it all by ourselves. I’m always wary of anything that suggests that it’s just between us and God, when Jesus so firmly and frequently reminds us that all of our neighbors fill the spaces between us and God. Maybe denying ourselves actually means we can deny this privatized notion that we have that we are solo, contained, doing it on our own, so “unique” that we cannot be in solidarity and in community.

Taking up a cross and confronting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves isn’t the work of an individual. I think maybe taking up the cross is always the work of a community. In fact, the image of Simon of Cyrene being called on in the gospel to help Jesus carry the cross comes to my mind. Jesus needs help carrying the cross too. Denying ourselves is the ongoing, difficult work of shedding the beliefs that we can or should do it on our own, that we are on our own in our pain and struggles, on our own in confronting the powers and principalities, that we’ve got it figured out on our own, that we only need our own perspective, that we can box ourselves in. Deny this understanding of what self means. Take up the cross, the work of a community - the work of solidarity, of kinship, of working for justice. The work of carrying the cross, together. 

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. Amen. 

  1. Haraway, Donna. "‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective'." (1988) In Space, gender, knowledge: Feminist readings, pp. 53-72. Routledge, 2016.


Anonymous said…
Thanks, Beth. Miss your thoughtful sermons … although Ben’s doing a nice job up here, now. Embracing community and being willing to let go of the efforts to cling to safety and security and individuality is at the heart of the call of Jesus to each one of us. Keep preaching the Truth!
Beth Quick said…
Thanks for your kind words Don! I think of you all often <3

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