On What We Hold Most Dear
September 12, 2021
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Today’s sermon is titled On What We Hold Most Dear. My Grandmother always had a jewelry box sitting on her dresser. When I was very young, she would take it down for me to look through. To me, it was a treasure chest. I would carry it so carefully over to the high, four-poster bed. The bed was so high that it was impossible for me to climb onto but underneath the bed I found, what felt like to me, a secret room where I could look through the jewelry box all by myself. I remember this time as sacrosanct. After all, I was entrusted with the family jewels.
Little did I know then that the family jewels would never be kept in a jewelry box on the dresser, especially in a city where burglaries were not uncommon. What I was entrusted with was the collection of costume jewelry that my Grandmother wore on an everyday basis. The real family jewels, I discovered after her death, were tucked away in glasses on high shelves in the kitchen, at the bottom of her sweater drawer, and in the safety deposit box at the bank downtown. She did not even have easy access to the things she held most dear.
The lectionary offers us some remarkably beautiful scriptures today that are intended to guide us in deciding what we should hold most dear and also to warn us what’s at stake if we choose to follow the example of Christ.
In the eighth chapter today, we find Jesus traveling with his disciples and he does something unprecedented. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Essentially, he is asking them, “What do you think?” Here, Jesus is using the most effective tool any teacher has at hand, the question “What do you think?” The answer, no matter what it is, is bound to reveal a great deal about the answerer. It is Peter that says, “You are the Messiah…” the anointed one, the one chosen by God, the fulfillment of over 300 Old Testament prophesies. And what does Jesus say to this? “Shhhh! Don’t tell.”
Then, Jesus reveals to his disciples, for the very first time, the devastating news of his coming struggle and inevitable death. This is a big moment here, and what follows is definitely on my top 10 list of the most poignant verses of scripture in the New Testament. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Notice he says, “if”; that’s our exit ramp right there. We have a choice about whether to follow Jesus’s teachings and his life example. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves…”
The phrase “deny themselves” can be translated from the Greek as “disregard the Self.” The Self is not the most important thing. The Self is like the costume jewelry my Grandmother kept in her fancy jewelry box to lure the thief away from where the most valuable things were kept. The Self, with all of it’s desires, disappointments, and opinions is what most often distracts us from what and from whom we should be holding closest in our hearts and minds. Jesus says, “Disregard the self, take up your cross;” he does not say, take up the cross, or take up my cross. “Take up your cross and follow.”
Now we, each of us, are charged to work out this meaning for ourselves. Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” What is our cross? Here is some good advice from Frederich Buechner; he writes, “Listen to your life.” What are the relationships that help us the most? What are the relationships that hinder us? Who are the people and what are the things we hold most dear? Where and how do we spend our money? To whom and to what do we devote most of our time and attention? We create our lives through the choices we make and the consequences of the choices we make comprise the cross that we bear, each and every moment of our lives. As if that were not enough, Jesus then says, “You have to lose your life to find it.”
A more accurate translation reveals that the word Jesus actually used instead of “life” was the Greek word for soul, psychen. You have to lose your soul to find it; holding on to it and guarding it and trying to remain in control are impulses that are innate, I think, in every single one of us. That’s what we feel we must do to cope with life in this modern world, but Jesus is not talking about a worldly life; he is talking about a spiritual life. It is possible to have both. The big question is, which one is most important? What do we hold most dear? The answer to this question determines everything.
Now we see the reasoning behind the lectionary offerings so full of First Testament advice about looking to the law of the Lord, finer than gold and sweeter than honey. What is that Law, so shiny and so sweet? Jesus gives us an answer in the book of Matthew, chapter 22 but he is drawing from First Testament scriptures in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest command. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We still have to answer that question, though; what do we hold most dear? Is it the way of the world we are most devoted to, or the way of love…the way of God? In all honesty, I find I have to answer this question over and over and over and my answer changes; I wish it didn’t. And I wish my actions were always aligned with my words, but they aren’t. I like to think I’m one step ahead just because I know I have a lot of inner work to do, but it’s not much consolation.
In closing, I want to lift up the work that we are all doing…as a church, as a community, and as individuals. The crosses we bear may have all manner of things attached to it that we are dragging around, but we can still live a life rich in meaning and relationship, especially if we keep our priorities in order. Love God. Love one another. In doing so we will find all things much easier to bear. Amen.
Infinite Love we call God, I pray your guidance within us through the challenges of our lives. We have been told that nothing can separate us from your everlasting love; help us to be open and trusting enough to experience that as truth, and as grace. When we struggle and when we soar, remind us to look beyond ourselves and expand our awareness that we may begin to fathom the workings of the Divine, even in the most mundane aspects of our lives. Guide us in ways to care for ourselves, and as we extend ourselves in service to others, help us to maintain a healthy balance within. Grant us peace, that we may then listen and be ready to act in a way that allows for healing, hope and possibility. This I ask in Jesus’s name, who taught us this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 2:
“May your hearts be comforted, and well-equipped in charity and in all the riches of complete understanding, so you may know the mystery of God, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”