Lent 2B’24
25 February 2024
Gen.17.1-16; Mk.8.31-38
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone <+>

“If You Die Before You Die, Then You Won’t Die, When You Die.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. – Epigram from the gateway of Mt. Athos Monastery in Greece

There is a pastor in a large Texas city who holds service in a church building that used to be a concert venue, and it seats over 16,000. They hold 4 services per week, giving them an average Sunday attendance just short of 50,000 per week. The pastor lives in a 17,000 square foot home costing somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million dollars. Man did I miss my calling or what?!

Out of all of the abundance of people, resources, and money there is one thing that is in extremely short supply, in fact, if you were to visit the church you wouldn’t find a single one them, what is it that they don’t have? A cross. You heard me correctly! There is not a single cross to be found anywhere in the church building. Why? The pastor has been quoted as saying, “the cross is not the message we want to send, it’s too negative.” Sermons are more focused on self-help with some Jesus sprinkled in. This free and unaffiliated congregation doesn’t have to worry about declining numbers. But I would say that “cashing in the cross” might be a bigger problem.

In most Episcopal churches I have ever been in, one of the most prominent features is that almost always there is a cross. There are crosses of all types, from sterling silver to solid gold, precious gemstones, costly wood inlays to rugged wooden beams – or as is the case at St. Luke’s you will see one from the parking lot on the top of our steeple. When you enter the narthex, you will see an ornate brass altar cross on the guestbook table, and upon entering the nave your eyes will be drawn to the front wall behind the altar where you will see a stylized, shining brass cross with the additional symbols of the alpha and omega and delta that forms a crown. There’s yet another cross that we are expected to bow to, as an altar server brings a portable cross down the center aisle during the procession.

As we know, crucifixion was the cruelest and most torturous method of capital punishment the Roman empire could come up with. This horrible fate awaited any who would dare to challenge Caesar’s authority. Death on a cross became Jesus’ destiny as it did for several of his early followers; and capital punishment has continued to claim martyrs throughout the centuries anywhere the oppression of the State was challenged.

Right near the end of the Second World War, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Gestapo for his part in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls [someone], he bids them [to] come and die.” He knew that being a follower of Christ could cost him his life and it did, and it will cost ours as well. You might say, “Uh, Fr. Carey I didn’t sign up for martyrdom.” Fortunately, millions upon millions of Christians have never been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. So, what do we make of the biblical invitation to die to ourselves?  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If this doesn’t mean martyrdom for us all what then? There must be an additional layer of meaning not just for martyrs but for all of us.

I lived for years doubting and discounting my desires and assuming that anything I wanted or liked was probably sinful and that God’s will was supposed to be better for me, but why did it have to mean giving up my heart’s desires and being miserable in the process? I’m grateful for the understanding that I gained from a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton. Through his writings I was introduced to what he referred to as the “False Self” and the “True Self.”

If you will open your service leaflets to the last page you will see two columns. One has a heading that reads “Ego” and underneath it says: “false self.” On the right-hand column, it reads “Soul” and underneath it says “True Self.” The False self is a self that we present to the world, a self that we developed over the years to cope and fit in with our families of origin and to fit in the world around us. This false self is egocentric and seeks to serve itself, compete with those around them, seeks materialism, speaks with pride, holds on to resentments, highly individualistic, and is “me” focused.

On the right-hand column for the True Self is the Self that God made in God’s own image, and this is our truest core identity that seeks to serve others, sees life as a gift, seeks spirituality, speaks with love, forgives peacefully, seeks unity, and is “we” focused.

So, with this understanding suddenly Jesus’ calls for us to deny ourselves, to lose our selves for Christ’s sake begins to make a whole lot more sense. This false self is what needs to be let go of so that the True Self can live. To be possessed by our false selves is to walk in ways of darkness that are death dealing to ourselves and others. But when we let go, the True self brings new life for we are acting from a place of our God given authenticity. Jesus shows us the way and tells us the way is by way of the cross. Holy scripture is full of stories of ordinary people who found out that, “If You Die Before You Die, Then You Won’t Die, When You Die.” What did some of their crosses look like? Think about Mary, she was engaged and had her whole life before her as a Jewish housewife, but her true self had to face scandal as an unwed mother and was to become the Mother of God. From her own mouth comes the news of her denying herself: She responded to Gabriel’s visit, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Joseph, engaged to a young Jewish girl finds out she had become pregnant through a mysterious means and is told by God in a dream to marry her anyway. To face the public in scandal and marry the young girl was the shape of his cross. Saul thought his life was about putting Christians and Christianity out of business but was blinded by the light of Christ, his whole life changes direction and God gives him a new name – Paul. His cross came in the shape of a spiritual ambush on the road to Damascus. The God who knows us best loves us most and doesn’t want to lead us to misery but towards an authentic life based upon the gifts and desires that are given to us by God. When we let go and pray like Jesus did, “not my will but thy will be done” the True Self starts to be realized and we exchange our self-serving ways to the service of others. We exchange competition for receiving life as a gift. From pride to loving humility. Our opening hymn speaks of the exchange of the false self for the true self:

“So daily dying to the way of self, so daily living to your way of love, we walk the road, Lord Jesus that you trod, knowing ourselves baptized into your death, so we are dead and live with you in God.”[1]

This Lent we are called to more than church membership, we are called to discipleship, to be followers of Christ.

Let us pray:

Dear God,

I so much want to be in control. I want to be the master of my own destiny.

Still, I know that you are saying:“Let me take you by the hand and lead you.

Accept my love and trust that where I will bring you,

The deepest desires of your heart will be fulfilled.”

Lord, open my hands to receive your gift of love. Amen.[2]



[1] Cain, Thomas, “Eternal Lord of love behold your Church,” Hymnal 1982, #149

[2] Nouwen, Henri, With Open Hands