"Winning While Losing"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 16, 2003

Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-37


     Our theme for the second Sunday in Lent appears to go against so much that we believe.  In fact, the theme is so different that we may ignore it or fail to see how it could be applied to our lives. There are so many elements of life that put blinders on us. Perhaps the only way we may find Jesus' teachings inviting or compelling is if we look at ourselves as angels in the flesh who have come to earth to shape the future by influencing one person at a time.

     We Americans are conditioned to enjoy competition.  In collegiate basketball, for example, sports enthusiasts are in a period of time called March Madness. Teams play in their respective tournaments and then embark on a national path to the Sweet Sixteen and eventually they arrive at the Final Four.  Last year the University of Maryland won the NCAA Championship to the jubilation of Terrapin fans everywhere.

     When it comes to competition we may believe that most of us are on the sidelines as observers, but this is not so.  Life is filled with competitive moments.  Last week I was driving to Trinity United Methodist Church in Frederick with the chair of our Conference Trustees.  The 10:00 a.m. meeting put us on the beltway during the final death throes of the morning rush hour. As we arrived at the juncture where Rt. 95 merges with Rt. 495 the traffic came to a standstill.

     Several cars sped past us on the right shoulder.  Drivers up ahead who saw them coming pulled onto the shoulder to prevent their forward movement.  Both of us listened to the symphony of horns being sounded by angry drivers. The communication was, "Look, if we have to sit here, we all have to sit here."  We can become upset with morning traffic patterns or we can enjoy watching children play with their $27,000 toys.

     Competition is well ensconced in the majority of us.  If someone offends us, we often use body language that says, "I have been hurt and I want an apology."  If a Member of Congress makes an offensive comment about the power of the Jewish Lobby in America, commentators not only go on the offensive but critics begin asking him to step down. 

     Lawyers try to win cases.   Doctors try to beat the odds of prolonged illness or death in their patients with medications or surgical procedures.  Teachers try various techniques to get disinterested students to develop an enthusiasm for learning.  It appears that we cannot escape the climate that inspires us to compete for victory.

     In our lesson this morning Jesus placed before his listeners an entirely different point of view.  He told his disciples that he was going to suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law.  He said that while he would be killed, he would return to life after three days. 

     Peter spoke to Jesus privately and in essence said, "Why are you saying these things?  What are you thinking?  We have everyone where we want them!  Everything is coming together.  You are the Messiah.  We have victory within our grasp. All you have to do is lead us!" 

     Jesus became publicly critical of Peter's words and shared his wisdom with his disciples about competition and winning.  Here are the words that may appear foreign to us, "If any of you wish to come with me, you must forget yourselves.  If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you decide to lose your life for the truth, you will save it. What have you gained if you win everything in the world, but lose your identity, your understanding and your relationship with God?"     

     We want to ignore this arena of Jesus' teachings. This kind of thinking goes against everything we have been taught.  We know that, "Evil will only triumph if good people sit back and do nothing."  In fact, this was the basis of Peter's argument.  Jesusí message was very powerful. Thousands of people were listening. This was not the time for Jesus to be talking about his death.

     Jesus' message was designed to teach humanity a lesson while losing to the rules we humans generally use to make our judgments.  As we watch Jesus deliberately place himself in harmís way, we are astounded by how that small mustard seed grew into an extremely large shrub where numerous civilizations built their nests in its branches.

     When we make a decision to risk for the sake of love, we bring into motion all kinds of invisible forces that were not a sure thing when we made our choice.  This is what faith looks like.  This is what it means to allow God to create through us.

     In 452 C.E., during the reign of the Roman Emperor Honorious, gladiatorial combat was in great demand among spectators in the Coliseum.  These very popular games pitted warriors against wild beasts as well as each other. 

     A Syrian monk named Telemachus regularly spoke out against the games.  He would proclaim his opposition to anyone who would listen, "How can you find joy in the sport of watching people kill each other or be torn to pieces by wild animals?"  Everyone knew that he was a harmless old fool and only a few paid attention to him. After all, what did he know?

     One day Telemachus left the spectator stands and leaped onto the floor of the arena and verbalized his protest to the assembled throng.  Once again he cried out, "These games are not right.  In your hearts you know that this is true. I implore you -- do not support these games with your presence!  They must stop!" 

     Because he had interfered, those in charge of the games gave the order for the gladiators to kill this unarmed, pathetic inconvenience.  Telemachus was pierced by numerous spears thrust at him by the gladiators. He fell bleeding to the ground.  This was his last performance. 

     The crowd grew quiet. This personality who was known to everyone was clearly the loser, yet his words held a mirror in front of those assembled.  A small flame was rekindled in the nearly burned out consciousness of people he loved.  In a matter of months, gladiatorial combat came to an end forever. The next time you visit the Coliseum in Rome, remember Telemachus.  

     Who could have known this would happen?  There was absolutely no evidence that such a result would occur.  When one person stands forth for the sake of  love's vision -- the unseen power of God moves the universe in directions humanity could never have anticipated.    

     It takes one person to stand up and say, "This is not who we are!" Illustrations of Jesus' model are everywhere in the pages of history.  In the eyes of the Church, Martin Luther was a loser. He was branded by the Church as a heretic. When the Anglican church of England began to desensitize the faithful with doctrines, dogma and meaningless rituals, John Wesley stood forth.  He was a loser and his critics labeled him a methodist.  Rosa Lee Parks was a loser, but she made a statement about human rights that was heard coast to coast when she refused to move to the back of the bus. She changed American culture forever.

     Such people lived and died without understanding the full impact their lives would have on fashioning the future. We cannot begin to imagine the influence we have until we risk loss for the sake of love's truth. If we hide or remain afraid, so much can be lost.   

     Do we have the courage to stand with the losers so that humanity might be the winners? It certainly will not hurt any of us to listen again to Jesus' words.  There can be enormous consequences when we think, "Who am I that I could influence anyone?  What can I do; I am just one person?" When we think like this, major opportunities can be missed. As angels in the flesh, our mission statement of changing the future can become lost.

     One of the greatest disasters in history took place in 1271 C.E.  This was the year when Niccolo and Matteo Polo visited Kubla Khan.  Emperor Khan was considered the sovereign authority over China, India and all the territories to the East.  He was most intrigued and touched by the life and teachings of Jesus.  After careful consideration, Kubla Khan said to the Polos,

     You must go to your high priest and tell him on my behalf to send me one hundred men skilled in your religion and I shall be baptized, and when I am baptized, all my barons and great men will be baptized and their subjects will be baptized.  When this is done there will be more Christians here than there are in the rest of the world.

     The tragedy was that nothing was done to honor the emperor's request.  During the next thirty years, only a small group of missionaries was sent.  The Church apparently did not have a vision of how the world might look in the future if Christ had been presented to the people of thirteenth-century China, India and the East. And yes, Niccolo and Matteo were the parents of Marco Polo. 

      Jesus had a vision.  He stood forth alone with his vision when no one agreed with him.  When he made his decision, the invisible currents of thinking and history began to move.  How about us?  Are we expending our energy to meet our needs of the moment or do we live our lives with an eye on tomorrow's world?  

     Today each of us must behave and think the way we want the world's people to behave and think in the future. We never know who is watching.  All the world's leaders were once children who were not known, not privileged and not powerful.  Someone influenced them.  Someone planted a seed. 

     In our world we cannot afford for any of us to let any opportunity pass to make a difference in someone's life.  As angels in the flesh, this is our task.  This is who we are.  If the future is to change, it will change because of what we do today.  Are we prepared "to lose" so that the world's people might win?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    What peace comes to us, O God, when we truly understand that you love us just as we are.  We are much like sheep in your pasture, students who have come to the Master carpenter to learn how to build a life.  We thank you for inspiration.  We thank you for giving us the ability to refine our thoughts.  We thank you for horizons toward which to walk.  Spare us from developing beliefs that produce satisfaction with whom we have become.  Inspire us to remember that each day is a gift, each relationship holds the keys for personal growth and each unpleasant challenge can become a moment we allow our love to show.  Use us for channels for your peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus.  Amen

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Ever faithful and loving God, when we pause to recognize how our lives are filled with the beautiful treasures of peace, joy, hope, thanksgiving, admiration, and generosity, how easy it is to express the light that you have placed within us. 

    Yet we confess, at the moment, that your treasure trove of gifts is surrounded by clouds that prevent the clarity of our vision.  We cannot travel anywhere, listen to, watch or read about the news without experiencing words and ideas that disturb and preoccupy us. There was a day when information was not so readily available, but the world has grown much smaller.  Fear and uncertainty stalk humanity as never before.  Inner peace is a challenge to grasp and hold on to.   

    Inspire us, O God, during these days of Lent to live peacefully, to express peace and to bring peace into every relationship.  We do have the power to let our faith show.  We do have the ability to represent what your Kingdom looks like even though it is not yet here for so many others.  Allow your presence to be felt by everyone from world leaders to those in the trenches.  Breathe peace into all our lives so that we might choose wisely who we are when faced with terror.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .