Seeking a Purpose

Mark 8:31-38

You probably have to be at least as old as I am to remember this, but those of you who are, hark back to 1981 when The Greatest American Hero premiered on television. It starred William Katt, Connie Selleca and Robert Culp. It was the show where Michael Pare made his debut before hitting it big with the cult classic Eddie and the Cruisers. That gives you an idea of the time period we’re talking here—if you have any idea who any of these people are.

William Katt plays public school teacher Ralph Hinkley who has inherited the “alternative” class of kids who, for various and sundry reasons, could not succeed in the normal classroom setting. He’s sure he can save them and make a difference. In a totally believable turn of events, he ends up in the desert and receives a superhero suit from outer space that only he can wear. The problem is, the instructions got lost somewhere along the way, so no one, including its new owner, knows how to use it. So teaming with his wife, a washed-up FBI agent and his class from the land of the misfit toys, Mr. Hinkley sets out to save the world as a superhero in training, each episode discovering some new power of the suit. You probably remember the theme song. “Believe it or not, I’m walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free. Flying away on a wing and a prayer. Who could it be? Believe it or not, it’s just me.”

He has this suit that can do amazing things, but he has no sense of its full capabilities. He and his wife and his FBI friend and his even his class have to learn as they go.

It’s kind of the way life in general works—we learn as we go. And that is particularly true about a life in Christ. People like to say that the Bible is life’s little instruction book, but that’s not true. Instructions come with steps. Follow the instructions step by step and you can expect a certain result. The Bible doesn’t work like that. Sure, we have Love your Lord God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. But there is no promised outcome. No guarantee that if we follow those steps, we’ll get our dream job or our children will never make a bad decision or we will never find ourselves in the path of a reckless driver.  Not steps to take to assure the we’ll have a life that matters. A life of purpose. A life that makes a difference.

And that is a driving force in our lives, isn’t it? The desire to make a difference. The belief that our lives will matter. It’s part of the human condition. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that what was probably the most compelling scene in the movie that won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Movie was when Emma Stone, playing Michael Keaton’s daughter in the movie Birdman, goes on a diatribe about relevance.

Keaton, a washed up movie star trying to make a comeback with a Broadway play tells his daughter, this is my chance to do something that means something.

“Means something to who?” she says. “You had a career before the third comic book movie. Before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for about 1000 rich old white people whose only real concern is where they’re going to get coffee and cake after the show. And don’t act like you’re doing this for the sake of art. You’re doing this so you can feel relevant again. And guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day and you act like it doesn’t exist. “

We are fighting every single day to be relevant. To know that our lives matter. And often we go about it like Michael Keaton’s Birdman. If we can just achieve a certain level of success, of acclaim, of recognition. Our lives will matter. And that’s where we get it wrong. That’s where we really need some instructions. German theologian and martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.”

If the Oscar winner for Best Picture doesn’t steer us in the right direction, perhaps the Oscar winner for best song does. Written and performed by John Legend and Common, Glory talks about the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, but also the larger and ongoing struggle for civil rights. But the refrain for this song of struggle is “Glory!” Why on earth in the midst of a song about oppression and violence and the need for justice would one sing of Glory? The refrain repeats over and over again. Glory. Glory. Glory.

Precisely because we find glory – and for that matter power and strength and relevance –in those moments when we surrender our own lives and our own interests and sometimes even our own safety in the service of others. When we take up the cross and follow Jesus.

It’s why Jesus rebukes Peter when Peter tells Jesus to knock off all that talk of suffering and sacrifice. Peter isn’t getting where Glory really comes from. That there is Glory in taking a stand and risking it all. That’s what Jesus means when he invites his disciples – then and now – to take up their cross and follow him because only those who are willing to lose their life out of love will save it.

A friend of mine’s husband used to love to go to Las Vegas for vacation and gamble. His gambling never turned into a problem because he always set a budget for how much he was willing to lose, and he never went over his budget. He factored it in to the overall cost of the vacation. Sometimes he won, but he never lost more than he intended to or more than he could afford.

Jesus is trying to let is disciples know that a life in Christ is not like a weekend in Vegas. We don’t get to set limits on what we are willing to do or what we can afford to lose. We are much more like the Greatest American Hero, who floundered and flailed around each week discovering yet another power he (along with his suit) possessed. When we lose our life to follow Christ, the journey may not (okay it will not) always be smooth. We will find ourselves giving up more than we planned, losing more than we can afford and discovering throughout the journey that we are capable of more than we ever thought we could be.

–Rev. Anne Russ

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