The readings for Sunday, March 4, 2012:
First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)
Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
In today's Gospel, Jesus gives us fairly stark terms about what it means to be a Christian, and it's worth thinking about, in our world where Christianity has become so distorted and used to justify so many questionable activities.
Over the last 50 or so years of the 20th century, many people came to see Christianity as just one more way to self-enlightenment or self-improvement. Many people combined Christian practices with Eastern practices, and most of them showed that they had precious little knowledge of either.
Or worse, people seemed to see Christianity as a path to riches. We see this in countless stories of pastors who took money from parishioners and, instead of building housing for homeless people, built mansions for themselves. We see this in the megachurch which is held up as an optimum model, the yardstick by which we smaller churches are measured and come up lacking. The bestseller lists are full of books which promise a Christian way to self-fulfillment or riches, while books of sturdy theology will never be known by most readers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of a multitude of theologians who warns us against this kind of thinking, of what Christianity can do for us. He calls it cheap grace, this salvation that doesn't require us to change our comfortable lives (or worse, tells us to expect more comfort). He says, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock" (A Testament to Freedom 308).
Jesus reminds us again and again that Christians are to strive NOT to put themselves at the center of their lives. Taking our Christian lives seriously is sure to put us on a collision course with the larger world. Christ warns us that we may even lose our lives. I suspect that he means this on several different levels, yet it is worth reminding ourselves of how many martyrs there have been, even in the late-twentieth century, people who were murdered because they dared to take Christianity seriously and called on corrupt governments to change their practices or went to places where the rest of us are afraid to go to help the poor of the world.
If we don't put ourselves at the center of our lives (and what a countercultural idea that is!), then who should be there? Many of us deny ourselves for the good of our children, for our charity work, for our bosses. Yet that's not the right answer either.
God requires that we put God at the center of our lives. Frankly, many of us are much better at putting our children first or our students or our friends--but God? Many of us are mystified at how we even begin to do that.
A good place to start is with prayer. You don't need a formal time to pray--just check in throughout the day. Go back to the practices that your parents probably tried to instill in you: say grace before meals, say your bedtime prayers, think about who could use God's assistance, and use your prayer time to remind God of those people. If you feel awkward, go back to old standards, like saying the Lord's Prayer or reading a Psalm.
Make God a daily and a weekly priority: go to church services. Lent gives you the opportunity to experience different kinds of services. Take advantage of these.
Once God is at the center of your life, then you are more well-equipped to care for the world. We are not emotionally equipped to deal with the cares of the world, especially now that we have 24 hour reporting on every catastrophe that happens. But with God at our core, we can cope.
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