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Edward F. Markquart

Series B

Brrr, The Water is Cold

Lent 2B     Mark 8:31-38

The title of the sermon for students in grades 5-9 who are taking notes is: "Brrr. The Water is Cold."  The text is Mark 8:34-35.

There is only one Bible verse in the New Testament that is repeated six times on the lips of Jesus. Six times from the mouth of Jesus. Six times from the heart of Jesus. It is found in Mark 8:35-35. It is one of the greatest verses from the lips of Jesus, and as disciples of Jesus, we need to know this famous teaching. This Bible verse divides itself into five lines, and I would like you to memorize these five lines now. Would you all repeat after me?

  • If anyone would be my disciple,
  • Let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me;
  • Whoever finds their life, loses it;
  • Whoever loses their life, finds it.
  • What does it profit you, if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul?

This verse and its variations is found six times in the gospels. These words were spoken before Good Friday and before Jesus’ death on the cross. These words were spoken Jesus early in his ministry, before the Transfiguration.  

A favorite novel of mine is a novel entitled THE FALL by Albert Camus. Camus is a French novelist, and his book, THE FALL, is a classic of modern literature. Camus is often considered the father of a philosophy called Existentialism.

 I would like to briefly retell the plot of the story of THE FALL. It is a story of a person by the name of John Baptist Clements. John Baptist Clements was a middle class lawyer, an outstanding man, a fine man, a good citizen, but he has this one fundamental flaw. This flaw hounded him throughout his whole life and it was the flaw of egotism, that he loved his life too much, that he loved himself too much, that he was never able to break out of the boundaries that limited his love to himself. He was incapable of giving himself in love to another human being. Something in his inner core got in the way and prevented him from loving another. But, even so, he wanted to love. In the book, he said, “I was always bursting with vanity. I, I, I was the refrain of the theme of my whole life. The pronoun I was part of everything I said. I could not talk without boasting. When I was concerned about another person, it was out of condescension. When I loved another person, my self esteem would increase a little bit. I, I, I. It was the theme of my whole life.”

One night, it happened. The night of The Fall. It was the night of his fall from grace, and it changed his whole life. It happened on a bridge in Paris, France, a bridge that crossed the River Seine. It was a dark, foggy night, wet, cold and damp. It was midnight and he was walking along at midnight across this bridge on the River Seine there in Paris. The lamp posts were glowing in the wet, evening fog. He wore a trench coat, wrapped up and bundled around him. He was smoking a cigarette as he was walking across the bridge on that foggy night. As he walked across the bridge that night, there was a woman, leaning over the rail, looking down deeply into the water. She, too, was all alone, a slim, young woman dressed in black. He sensed that she was going to jump from the bridge. He sensed that she wanted to commit suicide. He paused, paused for a moment, just for a moment, with the thought of helping her. He thought of saying a word to her. He paused…and … and walked away. Moments later, as he walked off the bridge, he heard a body hit the water. He heard a woman crying for help as she floated downstream. He did nothing. He stopped short. He listened. And gradually the voice of her screaming stopped. There was a devastating silence. He wanted to run but his body would not stir. He stood there motionless in that fog. And then? He walked away, cigarette in hand, overcoat collar wrapped around his neck. He told no one. That was the night, the night of “the fall.” It was that night that he fell from God. The night that he fell from love. That night was the night that there was a deep and dawning awareness in him that he was incapable of truly loving another who was in need of his care. The night of the fall.

Shortly after, John Baptist Clemens went home and his conscience started to laugh at him. The memory of that moment haunted him every night. He would hear her screams in the night of his memories and he would remember that he did absolutely nothing. He paused and only paused and moved on across the bridge. The screams would echo at night, and he would clamp his ears as he would wake up, hoping that her screams would die out, but they never did.

Well, we come to the end of the story and John Baptist Clements is in one of those Parisian cafes. The name of the café was The Mexico City and that dive was filled with smoke and people. And in the midst of so many people, he was all alone.  He was all alone in that noisy smoke-filled tavern. His conscience mocked him, whispering quietly, “Tell me John Baptiste. What happened to you that night on the banks of the River Seine? When you did not risk your life? When you paused and did nothing? That night when you had no feeling?” John Baptist thought to himself and his conscience, “O woman, throw yourself into the water a second time that I might have a second chance to save both of us.” And then his own voice murmured softly in the smoke-filled noisy tavern, “Brrrr. The water is cold. The water is cold. Too late now. Too late to love. Too late to change. Brrrr. The water is cold.”

That ends the story of a man who is forever trapped by this inability to love another, who was trapped by his selfishness. Thus ends the story of man who never understood Jesus when he said, “God is love and whoever lives and loves lives in God.” Thus ends the story of a man who never experienced that "no greater love has a person that this that he gives his life for a friend." Here ends of the story of a man who never knew what it meant to lose one’s life in order to find it. Here ends the story of a man who never knew what it mean to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. “Brrrrr. The water is cold.”

A second story, just the opposite. It was a cold Wednesday in January in the year 1982 in Washington, D.C., at Washington National Airport. It was a cold, bitter cold, snowy time of the year and there was a blizzard blasting the northeastern part of the United States. Flight 90, Air Florida, was ready to take off for its flight. It had been sitting there for an hour on the tarmac and nobody had examined the wings for icing, and the plane took off. The airplane, as it took off, clipped the top of the bridge over the Potomac River, and the plane crashed down into the river, into the cold, freezing water. "Brrrr. The icy water is cold." There was a momentary silence which seemed to last for an eternity. There was no noise but only an empty silence. Suddenly, there were the sirens, the ambulances, the police cars, the fire trucks onto the scene. Seventy-eight people died instantly. A few people that were alive crawled out of the airplane and onto the wings. "Brrrr. The water is so cold." A woman standing on the wing dove into the water and floated down the icy waters screaming for help. The people on the banks of the river, stood there, panicking, not knowing what to do, and then running for help. From the bank, one man dove into the cold water, "Brr. The water is so cold," and he swam to the woman, rescued the woman and brought her back to the land. Later, the young man said, “Somebody had to help that woman.”

And suddenly, there were six people standing there on the wing of the airplane, with the rushing freezing water swirling around them. Suddenly, a helicopter came from above, and it hovered above the wing, and the helicopter had a long life line drop down to the wing with a life ring at the end of that life line. Among those six people on the wing, there was an older man, in his fifties, balding, portly, pot bellied, with a giant mustache. The life line and the life ring came down from the chopper and the big man grabbed the life ring. Rather than putting the life ring around himself, he put the life ring around another person on the wing. The helicopter flew the rescued person to shore. The second time. The third time. The fourth time. The fifth time. And each time, the big portly balding man with the large mustache, took the life ring and gave it to another. The helicopter came back the sixth time and the man was gone. "Brrr. The water is cold." And he drowned. … The chopper pilot later said, “I have never seen anyone with that kind of commitment in a crisis situation.” And later, when they found the body of this person and he was identified, a friend said, “Well, that is the kind of man that he was. He was always giving of himself to others for that was the nature of his life.”

This man understood. This man understood that God is love and whoever lives in love live in God, whoever walks in love walks in God. This man understood that no greater love has a person than this than they are willing to give their life for a friend…or a stranger. This man understood what it means to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Jesus. This man understood what it means to lose your life in order to find it.

A few thoughts. Christianity is not a “crutch for cripples.” I have heard it often. I heard it the other day. “Christianity is a crutch. It is a crutch for weaklings. Christianity is for weak people who cannot stand on their own two feet. So when life is hard and they don’t want to stand on their own two feet, they lean on Jesus Christ who is their crutch.”

Now, there is a truth to that. I mean, life can be very hard at times. When life is very hard, we do lean on God like we are crippled human beings. For example, if you have experienced the death of your child, when your child was an infant or a young man or an older person; if you have experienced the death of your own child, you know that life is very hard. And you cannot help but lean on God.

Or, if you are going through a divorce right now, or if your husband does not love you, or if your child is going through a divorce right now, then you know how hard and painful it is for your grandchildren. For all of you in that situation, you want to lean on God and lean on Christ. People could say that it is all a crutch.

Or, if you have lost your job in this economy and you are fifty five years old and you do not have any economic resources, and you have no place to go and you do not have any “safety net” to catch you, as is happening to all kinds of people in our society and within our congregation. When you have no options and you are fifty five and you can’t find a job, you lean on Christ who some people could say is a crutch.

Yes, it is true, that during the great disasters of life, when life is incredibly hard, it is natural and good that we lean on God, that we lean on Jesus Christ.

But Christianity is more than that. Christianity is the great invitation by Jesus Christ to deny yourself, talk up the cross of your life and follow me. Christianity is the great invitation to love the love your God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. Christianity is the great invitation of Jesus Christ to walk in love.

What does it mean to love? To love means to sacrifice and suffer.

I will never forget Good Friday of 1963. It was my first sermon and I was twenty-two years old. I was the youth director at Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Morris Wee, my senior pastor, had asked me to preach the sermon on Good Friday and so I did. I still have a copy of that sermon, and that copy is yellowed with age, with the passage of forty years of history. In that sermon, as a young man, I said, “All people carry crosses. Some people carry crosses that are made out of lightweight aluminum. That cross looks heavy but it is not. Some people advertise that they are carrying a cross and truly loving other people, but it is a façade because the cross that they are a carrying is made out of lightweight aluminum. It looks heavy, but don’t kid yourself, it is light. Still other people carry a cross made out of foam rubber. The foam rubber is painted black or dark brown. That cross looks like it is heavy, but it is not. That foam rubber cross sits comfortably on their back, with padding on their shoulders. Such people give the façade, they give the impression that they are genuinely compassionate people but it is all a façade. They are not. But there is a third cross and it is made out of wood. Out of solid wood. It is heavy, as heavy as can be. And when you carry that cross, you feel the weight of love and the weight of the world on your back. That is what Jesus invites us to do."

To deny yourself and pick up your cross of suffering means many things: It means to put your own plans, pleasures and priorities on hold. It means to put the need of others first, before your own needs. It means to take care of those people whom God has put at your doorstep.

So I have been thinking of illustrations of people who have been carrying genuinely heavy crosses. I will tell several, brief stories.

I know this man who is carrying for his ninety-four year old father who is dying. The burden is heavy. I know of a family who recently cared for their ninety-eight year old mother as she slowly died. The burden was heavy. I know of a young woman who took family leave from Boeing to carry for her dying mother for weeks and months. The burden was heavy. None of these crosses were made out of lightweight aluminum; none of them were made out of soft foam rubber. These crosses were all heavy, heavy like wood.

A second illustration. Let’s talk about parents who care for their sick children. To truly love is to carry the burden and pain of childhood. It is at the heart of love. Now, I could use many examples, but I am thinking of two sets of parents who cared for their children when their children were having seizures. These two children from two different families were having seizures. One particular child has as many as eighteen seizures a night. Then it got down to twelve. Nasty seizures. Day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month. Every night of every week of every month, these parents took care of their children with his nightly episodes of seizures that could not be medically controlled. Both mothers were nurses and both knew of medical resources but those medical resources did not stop the seizures in their children. None of their crosses were made out of lightweight aluminum; none of them were made out of soft foam rubber. These crosses were all heavy, heavy like wood.

Then, there are illustrations of “I want to help you carry that heavy cross.” I am thinking of this woman whose husband had Alzheimer’s Disease. The burden was genuinely heavy and friends said to her, “Let us help carry that cross. Let us help you carry that burden. It is too much to carry for person.” Not light-weight aluminum. Not painted foam rubber but wood.

I think of a friend who had hepatitis and was dying of a liver disorder. The people in our parish said, “Let us help you carry that cross. Let us help you carry that burden. It is too heavy for one person to carry.” Not light-weight aluminum. Not painted foam rubber but wood.

I think of a woman whose husband was dying of cancer and friends said, “I want to help carry that cross. That cross is too heavy for one person.” Not light-weight aluminum. Not painted foam rubber but wood.

St. Francis of Assisi said; “It is in giving that we receive. It is in dying that we are born to a new and living hope.” Jesus said, “He who loses his life will find it.”

I would like to suggest to you today that Christianity is the great invitation to live as Christ lived, to love as Christ loved. And there is no greater love than this than a person lay down his life for his friend. Christianity is that great invitation to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ.

Poor John Baptist Clements. He never understood. “Brrrrr. The water is cold. Too late now. Too late to love. Too late to change. Brrr. The water is cold.” Poor John Baptiste Clement never understood…the cross. Amen.

CHILDREN’S SERMON. I asked the children what was the primary symbol of the Christian faith and one child answered, “the cross.” I then had the children find images of crosses in our sanctuary e.g. the five crosses on the communion table, the five crosses in the wood carving of Jesus e.g. in his hands, feet, and side, the five crosses in the stained glass and those crosses are in the shape of stars, the cross on the baptismal candle, the cross in the processional banner, the cross in the processional cross. I explained to the children that the primary symbol of the Christian faith is the cross and that they need to have a cross hanging someplace in their bedroom.

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