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Sermon: Too Much Help

September 11, 2009

Mark 8:27-38

Once upon a time, there were two very good and loving parents.  They had two children—a girl and a younger boy—and these kids were the center of their lives.  The man and woman made every important decision based on whether or not it would help their children.

Education was very important to this family, and so each day the mother would cook a healthy breakfast, and the father made healthy lunches for the kids.  Mom kept their rooms tidy and made their beds so that after school, the children would have a neat, quiet place to study.  Dad made sure the homework box was always full of the supplies the girl and boy needed to complete their homework.

As the kids grew, mom and dad enrolled them in important activities to help them become well balanced and healthy.  Mom helped them study and dad helped them prepare for their SATs.  The parents sat down with their kids and filled out college applications and scholarship forms.  Everything that this young woman and young man needed to succeed was laid before them.

The girl went to college and the boy followed two years later.  They were both good schools.  The future seemed bright.  In the girl’s senior year of college, she suddenly showed up at home in the middle of the fall semester.

“I’ve dropped out,” she said.  “I don’t think I’m going back.”

Of course, this was a terrible blow to the parents.  They blamed themselves first, but then realized that their daughter was a young adult and made her own decisions.  But no matter how they encouraged her, she couldn’t keep a job.  She languished at home for years, not ever finding her way in the world.

Fortunately, the young man graduated from college with honors.  He immediately found a great job with great potential for advancement.  Within a year of taking that job, he showed up at the door one evening.

“I quit my job,” he said.  “Do you think I can stay here for a while?”

As it turned out, that “while” became a couple of years, the son also having trouble finding work.  “What in the world has happened?” the couple asked each other.  “We worked so hard to give our kids the education they needed.  They had a perfect start in life.  This shouldn’t be happening.”

What happened was that the parents had worked too hard.  They had been so helpful to their kids that they had never learned to help themselves.  The young woman never had to make her bed or ask for a snack.  It always appeared just at the right time.  The boy never had to ask for help with a college application because his parents had everything waiting for him at the kitchen table.  The kids never had to ask to play soccer or take guitar lessons because mom and dad had already signed them up.

Their parents—extremely loving and caring people—had given them so much help as to be unhelpful.  So when the girl had to prepare her senior thesis in college as a directed study, she had no idea how to direct herself.  Quitting school was easier to take than failure, and so she quit.  The boy never had to plan and execute a project on his own.  Mom and dad had planned everything out for him ahead of time.  So when his employer put him in charge of a project, the young man failed.  It was easier to quit than to feel a failure, so he showed up at the door one night.  It is possible to be too helpful.

*     *     *     *     *

Jesus was traveling with his disciples on the way, and he asked them, “When people are talking about me, who do they say that I am?”

“Some people say John the Baptist returned from the dead, others Elijah or one of the other prophets also returned from the dead.”

“But who do you say that I am?”

Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus ordered his followers not to say anything about this to anyone probably due to what he was about to say next.  Jesus told Peter and the others that as Messiah, he would be rejected by religious leaders, he would be killed, and after three days, he would be raised.

Peter was a good friend.  He loved Jesus.  He was passionate about the Gospel and the mission of which he was a part.  He was trying to be helpful.

“Jesus, this is not how it should go.  That doesn’t sound right.  You don’t deserve that sort of treatment.”  What good friend wouldn’t want to rescue someone from undeserved pain and suffering?  We can understand Peter’s motivation.

Jesus isn’t interested.  He doesn’t care that Peter has the best of intentions.  All he knows is that Peter isn’t being helpful.  In fact, Peter is tempting Jesus.  He is acting as an agent of Satan, the great tempter of humanity, by trying to deflect Jesus from his proper course.  Jesus knows that to be Messiah is not to be a triumphant, victorious figure, but a rejected servant who will suffer and die.  It is hard enough to screw up one’s courage to follow this difficult path without having a friend trying to convince you that the safer path is better.  So Jesus responded harshly.

He rebuked Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan!  You are setting your mind on human things.  You must see as God sees.”

Peter was just trying to help.  To him, there was no purpose in Jesus throwing his life away.  That didn’t sound like any sort of leader Peter could imagine following.  Peter had seen Jesus’ work—the healing, the teaching with authority, the miracles—and what he saw fit every notion Peter had of Messiah.  But he was wrong.

And this is how temptation comes to us, just as it did to Jesus.  Temptation comes out of the mouth of a good friend, not a devil with horns.  Temptation comes to us from someone who loves us and means the best for us, not from an arch enemy.  Temptation comes to us as a rational, reasonable alternative, not as some evil, outlandish scheme.  Temptation came to Jesus through Peter, who wanted to save his good friend from trouble.  There is such a thing as too much help.

Ken Callahan has saying that guides our desire to be helpful.  Ken says “we share almost enough help to be helpful, but not so much help that the help becomes harmful and creates a co-dependent—dependent pattern of behavior” (Ken Callahan, “Leaders  Disciples  Decisions,” a seminar; April 27-May 1, 2009, San Diego, CA.).  Share almost enough help to be helpful.  In the opening story I described two parents who loved their children so much that they did things and made decisions for their children that the children ought to have done and decided for themselves.  The children became dependent upon the parents for direction.  When that direction was gone, the kids couldn’t survive in the world on their own.  They never learned how to direct their own lives.

Peter is giving much more help than is necessary or helpful.  In doing so, he has become a conduit of temptation to his friend.  “Yes, Jesus, I understand that you’re headed for the cross, but you really don’t deserve that kind of fate.  You’re a good guy.  Imagine all the good things you could do with a long life.”

And Jesus’ response is “Get behind me, Satan.  Get behind me.  Take your proper place, which is to follow me.  You have correctly identified me as Messiah, but you have not figured out that the disciple follows the Messiah.  You do not direct me, but I lead you.”

Then, Jesus called the crowds around him.  He was about to describe what it means to follow the Messiah.  “Deny yourself.  Take up your cross and follow me.”  The disciples of the Messiah are called to live as the Messiah lives—self-denial and taking up a cross.

Note that Jesus does not tell the crowds what their crosses ought to be.  The cross is something that we pick up voluntarily.  It is something that we choose.  For Jesus, he chose to go to Jerusalem, to rejection, suffering and death.  He leaves it up to us to choose our own crosses.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta chose to love and care for the poorest of the poor in India.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to stay in Nazi Germany and stand up to Hitler’s evil.  Bonhoeffer’s friends encouraged him to come to the United States where he would be safe.  Instead, he stayed to speak out against Nazi outrages, and was put in prison and executed.

One of the most well-known contemporary stories involves Pat Tillman.  Tillman played football at Arizona State and was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL.  Tillman was always his own man, and often defied the expectations of others.  This became obvious when he turned down a 9-million dollar contract from another team “out of loyalty to the Cardinals.”  Then, in May of 2002, Tillman turned down another contract offer, this time $3.6 million from the Arizona Cardinals.  This was only eight months after the events of September 11, and Tillman had decided that instead of playing football, he would serve his country.  He enlisted in the Army.

You can imagine that there were many of his friends and family who urged him to reconsider.  He was a wealthy professional football player, an idol to fans.  There was no need for him to put himself in harm’s way.  I’m sure someone told him that he could help out just as much by using his celebrity status to support the troops.

Yet Pat Tillman rarely did what others expected him to do.  Though he turned down football to enlist in the Army, he was not a hawk.  There is some evidence that he was critical of the war in Iraq.  He was a voracious reader of religious and philosophical texts, including the Bible and the Koran, as well as the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.  Yet, for whatever reason, that was his cross.  It was his choice.

Nearly two years after enlisting, Pat Tillman was on patrol in Afghanistan, and an explosive device detonated nearby.  There was a brief and very confused firefight.  We later learned that two friendly groups had fired on one another, and during the fight, Tillman was shot and killed.

Pat Tillman was not a follower of Jesus Christ.  In fact, he was not religious in any way, but his actions defined what it means to deny oneself and to pick up a cross.  He gave up fame and fortune to put himself in harm’s way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Tillman.).  And from what we know about Tillman’s prior life, his motive wasn’t revenge.

Each person’s cross is a choice.  No one can choose it for you.  Jesus and Teresa and Bonhoeffer and Tillman made their own choices.  People who loved them, who wanted too much to be helpful, encouraged them to choose differently.  The voice of temptation is often difficult to recognize.  It comes from people who care.  It comes from a place of reasonability.  And if we want to make the right choices for our lives and for others, we must listen for the one voice that really matters.  We must get behind the Messiah so that he can lead us on the right paths and show us what true life really means.  And we must love others enough to let them choose, to let them live their own lives and pick up their own crosses.

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