Sermon preached for the Second Sunday of Lent for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Cracker Barrel has a simple mission statement.
That’s it. Two words. Short and snappy. They have a mission, and that is pleasing people.
It’s not all that odd, really. They want every guest at Cracker Barrel to be pleased by the experience, for it to be warm and comfortable and familiar. There is a reason that Cracker Barrel was the favorite restaurant of my grandfather who lived in an RV. Whether he was in Nebraska, New Jersey, or San Francisco, Cracker Barrel was the same. Pleasant, conforming, and attentive to his needs and desires.
I’m not really here to diss Cracker Barrel. I do in fact find them to be a delightfully pleasing restaurant, full of homey charm and good food, and honestly, I give them credit for saying out loud what is often the hidden mission statement of any business that wants to make money: please people. Make them want to spend their money with you. Keep them happy so they won’t go anywhere else.
I like Cracker Barrel. But I have to be careful not to adopt their mission statement as my own. I’m not a corporation. I’m a Christian.
And the mission statement Christ offers us in our gospel this morning stands in stark contrast to Cracker Barrel’s: “take up your cross,” he says, “and follow me.”
Not a mission statement designed to please anybody.
There’s a reason Peter tries to hush Jesus up. They’re trying to build a movement, to draw people in, amp up their brand. Yet Jesus refuses to people please. He sets the bar high—impossibly high, it’s always seemed to me. The cross is a tool of death, of suffering, and so I always thought that Jesus meant here that we had to suffer, to suffer enough on this earth that eventually we would gain some sort of nebulous eternal life as compensation.
I’ve struggled with this, the Christian call to voluntary suffering, as if pain was some sort of abstract good. I’ve especially struggled with it when it’s been directed at those already suffering by those who benefit from their suffering, as if our cruelty towards each other was somehow sanctified by Christ.
But if I take a step back, I see that Christ’s goal in talking about the cross is to create not a theology of suffering, but a theology of life. He insists that to take up our cross and follow him will gain us our life. And the word eternal is nowhere in here. The word we translate life is one of my favorites—psyche. It means life, vitality, breath, soul, self. It’s an all-encompassing word that suggests the best of what it means to be alive as an individual on this earth. Christ says following him, even lugging a cross, is the only way to gain the best of what life truly is.
It seems like a paradox, but the more I pondered this week, the clearer it became.
Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on human things. He laments that we can gain the whole world but lose our life, when we are distracted from him. Because Jesus knows—Jesus knows—how easily we are distracted. How easily we can chase everybody’s approval but his.
And how we can waste our life away trying to please people. How we can have our very life—our soul, our being, our energy, our individuality—sucked away by the imagined weight of everyone else’s approval.
How many of you can relate to thoughts like these?
- If I don’t work over the weekend to finish this project my boss will be mad.
- It doesn’t matter who was wrong. If I just say I’m sorry, all the anxiety can go away.
- If I stay home tonight my friends will get offended and cut me out of their circle.
- If I don’t laugh at my uncle’s racist jokes family dinners will be so awkward.
- If the church changes a tradition some people might leave. We can’t upset people!
- If my kids aren’t in enough extracurriculars, the other parents will look down on me.
- If we can just all get along, we won’t have problems.
- If I’m too loud, too quiet, too flashy, too mousy, too opinionated, too boring, too pushy, too much of a pushover, too nerdy, too bland, too risqué, too righteous, too funny, too serious, too anything—then they just won’t like me, and then what will I do?
These thoughts are what lead us to unhealthy work habits, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy communities, unhealthy self-images. Trying to please people, simply put, is exhausting. It is soul-sucking. It is life-wasting. Because it isn’t really possible, and it never, never ends.
Setting your mind on human things doesn’t always mean chasing rock star fame and fortune. Sometimes it just means thinking all the regular people in your life have to like you for you to survive.
Ironically, pastors are renowned for being people pleasers, so we spend a lot of time coaching each other away from chasing the love of our congregations and back to focusing on the love of Christ. I remember a colleague once shared her mantra with a group of us at a conference. When she was stuck on one negative comment, mired in the fear that someone was mad at her, she would say to herself: “You can be the biggest juiciest peach on the tree and there will always be someone who doesn’t like peaches.”
You can’t please everyone, and you can kill yourself trying.
Christ calls us to a different way; the way of the cross. Radical love, yes, but love that can be hard to swallow.
Making people happy is not always a bad thing. We are commanded to love each other, and sometimes the result of that love is happiness. But not always. Loving people does not always mean making them happy, as any parent who has had to set a curfew or enforce a grounding will tell you. Sometimes love says no. Sometimes love doesn’t allow bad behavior. Sometimes love looks a whole lot like conflict. At least, it did when Jesus did it. He loved the whole world, and the world did not love him back.
When we set pleasing people as the most important goal of our life, then we lose focus on the Christ who called us to a harder, deeper mission of love that transforms relationships into mirrors for God’s justice, grace, and compassion.
I used to think that to carry a cross just meant we needed to suffer more. That it was just about needing to be in more pain in order to be worthy of love, and y’all, that is so messed up. We do not serve a God who is pleased by our pain. Let me say that again, because it is important: we do not serve a God who gets pleasure from our pain.
Christ may call us at times to hurt with those who hurt, to undergo hardship for the sake of the healing of the world. But there is a distinction between carrying a cross and climbing up on one. To climb up on the cross is to give up any forward movement and simply succumb to pain, but to carrying the cross—that takes a different strength. Have you ever gone hiking and found it your job to carry the heavy bag, the one with the tent or the food or whatever your people need? It is impossible then to forget that you are with a group, because the sheer weight of the supplies reminds you with every step. When we carry a cross, we are reminded to slow down, to take each step deliberately, and that we are journeying with Jesus as our one and only guide.
You cannot zip from trend to trend with the weight of the cross on your shoulders. You cannot flit from friend to friend, seeking approval. You cannot look impervious, glamorous, or fashionable bent under its weight.
Your path will be slow, but your mission will be clear. Christ, no matter what else.
What would it look like, I wonder, if we stopped chasing everyone else’s approval? What would it look like, if we were less afraid to say no? What would it look like, in our lives, on our calendars, in our budgets, in our conversations? What would it look like if we were more anxious to please God than to please the people around us?
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Cracker Barrel’s mission was doomed from the start. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. There will always be someone who just doesn’t like peaches.
But there is a Savior who loves you perfectly, just as you are, whose love is trustworthy and sure. He proved that on that cross. So when you are feeling anxious and unsure, worrying whether you are good enough, whether “they” like you, whoever they may be, I invite you to take a breath, and relax. Relax into Christ’s love. Imagine it, two arms, strong enough to carry a cross, strong enough to hold you tight.
You can lose your life chasing everyone else’s approval. And you can find it, secure in the arms of God, who has loved you from the first.