It’s time for a little bit of pastor confession. Will you hear it for me? Here it goes – I go back and forth on this whole idea of “giving something up for Lent.” I wasn’t raised with it in my family or early church up-bringing. Many of us Presbyterians are pretty new to the whole idea. I learned about it in college, mostly from my Catholic friends who, from the outside, seemed to be going on some kind of holy diet — no chocolate, no potato chips, no pepperoni on the Friday night pizza.
I couldn’t decide if the goal was to deprive oneself, improve oneself, or, as eventually I heard some of Protestant friends trying to reform Lent say, add a new spiritual discipline to one’s life. At some point in those early years of trying Lent and in several of the years since I have tried all three — giving something up simply for the sake of sacrifice, giving something up that is an obvious barrier between God and me, and taking on a spiritual practice. Some years I’ve tried three separate fasts all at the same time to make sure my bases were covered. As a friend of mine said yesterday “Lent is really hard for overachievers. This is the day every year that I decide to give up ALL the things (caffeine, alcohol, fast food, smart phone apps) instead of just one.”
Of course the whole idea of giving things up for the 40 days before Easter isn’t exactly biblical; it’s a tradition of the church. But what is biblical is the reality that following Jesus, the journey of discipleship does involve giving something up. The question just seems to be – what is it we are called to give up?
In our worship during this Epiphany season both of our congregations have been walking through the whirlwind of Jesus’s ministry that is the gospel of Mark. In these stories people have been called to give things up left and right. John the Baptist gave up his idea that he wasn’t worthy to be used by God to baptize Jesus and eventually gave up his life for the word he preached. Simon and Andrew gave up their nets, the vocation they thought they had in life, to follow Jesus and become fishers of people. James and John gave up their own father, entrusting his care to the community in order to learn from Jesus. Matthew, the tax collector, gave up a job that aligned him with the rich and powerful. Even Jesus when he taught in the synagogue of his childhood had to give up the ability to come home to find support and rest among his family and friends, all for the sake of his call from God.
Giving things up, whether they are worldly possessions, relationships, security, or prestige, is a part of the life of discipleship, because discipleship means putting the priorities of Christ in front of our own priorities. Discipleship means giving up the consideration of our own desires before considering the will and desires of God.
The disciples in today’s reading struggle with this idea. Who am I kidding? The disciples here today probably struggle with it, myself included. They heard Jesus talk about difficult things – about betrayal and death – and really, they’d rather not even ask about that which they don’t understand. They want to avoid those unpleasant words, that unpleasant reality. They want assurance that everything will be OK. They want to know that when all is said and done they are on the top of the heap, and therefore protected from the discomfort, even danger of what happens to people on the bottom.
However, Jesus tries to show them that’s not what the kingdom of God is about. Way back in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we’re told this story about Jesus is going to tell us what it’s like when the kingdom of God is near – – in Jesus the kingdom of God is near. Here the disciples seem to want the nearness of the kingdom of God to be a promise that they will be the greatest – – the most honored, the most respected, the most envied, and ultimately what comes with all of that – – the most protected. Jesus is talking about being betrayed and killed, being at the mercy of human sinful sickness and they are utterly confused by that; they want none of it. They want, instead to be protected from it, to be the greatest.
But, Jesus says, it just doesn’t work that way. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he tells them that to welcome him means to welcome a child. Servants and children? These aren’t the company of the greats!
This is the first of a couple of times that Jesus talks about children in this central part of Mark’s gospel. This time he tells the disciples to welcome one such children in his name. In the very next chapter he will stop the disciples from keeping the children away, encouraging them instead to receive the kingdom of God like children themselves. Two thousand years and countless cultural shifts after these words were uttered, we often hear them with a more romanticized version of childhood in mind than Mark’s readers would have had. When Jesus was talking about welcoming a child, he was talking about welcoming the most vulnerable segment of society. This wasn’t a time in history when childhood was idealized or made the center of community life. Instead children were powerless, only valued for what the potential they carried to someday contribute to the family and society. They had no legal rights or protection in society. They were completely vulnerable. Welcoming a child is about as far from greatness as one can get.
Yet this is what Jesus says it means to welcome him. This is what Jesus says is how the kingdom of God comes near – – by serving, by welcoming the child, by identifying ourselves with the most vulnerable in society. Being near the kingdom of God, being near Jesus, means, therefore, giving up greatness, and welcoming vulnerability. Because there isn’t much more vulnerable than being betrayed by one of your closest companions. There isn’t much more vulnerable than being forced to carry the instrument of your own death before you are hung upon it. There isn’t much more vulnerable than being given the breath of new life by the Spirit of God.
These ashes that we now wear on our foreheads are a mark not only of our vulnerability to the temptation of sin and life apart from God, but also another kind of vulnerability, the very vulnerability to which we are called by Jesus. They are a call for each of us to give up greatness for this season of Lent and in our lives as disciples of Jesus. They are a call and commitment to give up the desire to protect ourselves with possessions and power, give up the need to surround ourselves with those who are influential and indulgent of our whims, give up the temptation to serve ourselves and our interests first.
For these are things that we use to convince ourselves that we are in charge of our own destiny, that we are among the greatest, that we are, in essence, little gods. These are the things that separate us from true community, true fellowship in the Body of Christ. These are the things we cling to in a desperate attempt to ignore our mortality. These are the things that mask our vulnerable dependence on the grace of God.
So, let’s give them up together this Lent. Let’s give up that which we use to protect ourselves from feeling pain, that which we use to avoid revealing our true selves to others, that which we use to keep distance between ourselves and those who are different. Let’s give up the way we hide our confusion about matters of faith and be willing to ask questions together. Let’s give up the false notion that we aren’t yet good enough, holy enough, or faithful enough to approach our loving God.
For in pain and humility, in friendship and fellowship bound by the Spirit, in humble submission to the call of Christ, we are vulnerable. We see ourselves as we truly are, wholly dependent on the love of God. Vulnerable, we come near to the kingdom of God.