Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 31, 2014
In the spring of 2002, I took the SAT II in mathematics. I was a junior in high school, and I was looking for a way of getting out of college math. I passed the SAT II. I don’t know how, but I did. This means that I completed my senior year of high school, four years of college, and three years of seminary without ever taking another math class – thanks be to God.
The big mistake, was that I told this little, unknown fact to the Diocese of Texas. My bosses. Next thing I knew, I was registered for a week-long accounting course at SMU. If only I could keep my big mouth shut. Actually, I learned quite a bit and I now have a much better grasp on accounting. I can read balance sheets, budget projections, and profit and loss statements. And that’s a big one, the profit and loss statement. On that report, everything is lined up in nice, neat lines. In one column, you see what you have brought in. On the other side, you see what you have spent. A valuable tool. At that SMU course, I was there with hot-shot salespeople and executives from start-up tech companies, the oil and gas industry, and big name law firms. Needless to say, their balance sheets looked a little bit different than the ones I brought from Holy Comforter. Not to say that we’re in a bad place, because we’re in a great place. It’s just that there financial statements had a few more zeros tacked on to the end.
And you know, we run our life like profit and loss statements, don’t we? For me, as a diabetic, I calculate how much I’m taking in for food, so then I figure how much insulin I need to spend. Maybe you were planning a vacation for Labor Day weekend. You added up the costs and weighed them against the benefits – how much fun you’d have, what you would be doing, and weighed that against eating at restaurants, gas money, you get it. It’s just a profit and loss statement. And if the loss outweighs the profits, then maybe you just decided to stay home. That’s how it works, but that’s not how it works.
Listen to the words of Jesus – “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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
What Jesus is getting at, is that profit and loss statements have no mission. They have no vision. Profit and loss statements do not describe what you are actually trying to do with your life. Sure, a company may have a great profit and loss statement, but what does it mean if that company uses slave labor to produce chemical weapons? See, it’s not about the bottom line. The profit and loss statements that run our lives only take us so far. There must be a purpose.
What Jesus is getting at is that a life of discipleship, of following him as Lord is what really matters. The cross is our purpose. At the end of the day, if your losses are one hundred percent and your profits are zero, but you’ve been faithful to the Lord Jesus, then you have lived a full life. The bottom line may not look so great, but your purpose has been holy.
Now, let’s look at this whole self-denial thing. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” When I start thinking about self-denial, this is where my mind goes: “well,” I think, “maybe I’ll just order the regular size French fries instead of the jumbo.” Or, “you know what, I’ll stop at two cups of coffee today.” Let’s be honest. We’ve all said something like that to ourselves and counted it as self-denial. That’s like buying a new car without a sun roof and counting it as a sacrifice. That’s not self-denial. In the profit and loss statement that is your life, having two brownies for dessert is a minor rounding error.
Self-denial is a consistent and focused way of life intent on making your losses total and your profits zero. Self-denial is a pattern of life that removes the clutter from your heart, so that there is room for the Holy Spirit. Self-denial isn’t going for a regular sized order of French fries. True self-denial is giving up fast food so that you can give more money to the poor. Self-denial isn’t waiting until those shoes go on sale. You know what I’m talking about. True self-denial is saying, “I already have enough clothes in my closet.” For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit your life?
Of course, it’s not just about shopping or food. What Jesus is calling us to do is to deny everything we do that separates us from God. Jesus is calling us out of our old identities into a new identity. This is especially pertinent on the opening weekend of college football. From listening to some of my friends talk, it’s as life the Aggies or Longhorns are their life. And you know what? If that’s all we think about, then it probably is our life. If our identities are bound up in our political parties or the companies we work for, then this whole Jesus thing will always take second place. We will always be hedging our losses and trying to make a profit. Because we are still tempted by that bottom line even though it’s not the bottom line that counts. Jesus is what counts. We honor with our lips, but deny Christ with our lives.
Believe me, I have tried to put God second, third, or fourth place in my life. And that’s usually once, twice, three, more times a day. I may say that God is first, but my actions show that God is actually way down the list. This is something I’m still learning. Self-denial, putting God first in absolutely everything, carrying the cross, is not something you learn overnight. It’s not something you can say and it will magically happen. But in the moments of my life, where I actually did put God first, the results were absolutely amazing. The profit and loss statement didn’t look so great, because it usually meant that I lost a whole lot of money, pride, or ambition. And usually all three at once. But the reward, the grace, was beyond beautiful. Spending Sunday afternoons in college at a run-down nursing home. Leaving my fiancee in Dallas for seminary in Virginia. Those few moments, when I tore up the profit and loss statement of my life, I learned that God blessed me in ways that I cannot describe. Because when my heart was emptied, that’s when there was room for the Holy Spirit.
And that’s the crux of this. What we see as a loss, God sees as a gain. When we try to accumulate for ourselves, it usually means that it’s at the loss of God in our lives. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit you life? Choose life. Choose Jesus.