“Losing Your Life to Find It”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 16, 2018
my voice and my supplications.
Because God inclined an ear to me,
therefore I will call on the Lord as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, God saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
Then Jesus 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?
This morning we begin an informal sermon series on some of the challenging teachings of Jesus. The lectionary – the three-year cycle of Gospel readings followed by many Christian denominations – has a whole string of good stuff this fall, so in this series we’ll cover everything from wealth to divorce to cutting off your right hand if it sins! But this morning we’ll start a little softer: “Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus, “for if you want to save your life you must lose it.”
Jesus has just asked the disciples who they think he is – and they’ve answered that he’s the Messiah. But then he starts telling them about where his ministry will lead – and it is shockingly different from what they expect of a Messiah they’ve always envisioned as liberating their people from the political and military rule of Rome, to the point that Peter takes Jesus aside and begs him to quit talking about it.
It’s one of the things that is most compelling about this passage – the blatant reminder that following Jesus is not all sunshine and rainbows but rather that there is challenge and perhaps even suffering along the way.
Of course none of us finds ourselves in the exact situation Jesus was in – headed to a literal cross to be executed for upending the religious establishment and causing political unrest; and unlike many of the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking, we are lucky to live in a day and age when we’re not likely to be martyred for our faith.
So what does it mean to us, today, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus – to lose our lives that we might find them?
Before I go any further, I have to give credit to our incredible Bible Study crew from Wednesday night. Their robust thinking on this scripture got me thinking in rich ways that shaped this entire sermon.
As one person pointed out during that Bible study, in human life there is no escaping suffering. It’s not that God has created us to suffer, or that the essence of our faith can only be experienced through suffering – it’s that we are finite creatures who come to an end, whose lives are marked by the limitations of finite bodies and minds, and who frequently bump up against the imperfections of other humans and the injustices of the social and political systems our fellow imperfect humans have created over the centuries.
I don’t know why any of that is on any kind of cosmic or metaphysical level – I just know that it is, and that a faith that could not help us through the resulting pain and sorrow of this life would not be worth much.
But the good news is that we are not experiencing that pain or sorrow alone. There is One who has walked this road before us, indeed who walks it again every time we do and who knows intimately the human weight of life’s burdens. It is this One who invites us not just to drag our inevitable crosses along but to embrace them, as this Bible study attendee insightfully observed.
Last weekend during Alvira Gardner’s funeral, her daughter Linda Carew shared a thank-you letter of sorts to her mother for all the gifts her mother had shared with her during her lifetime. She thanked her mom for the beautiful clothes she made all her children and the exquisite handmade doll clothes that Linda loved to play with. She thanked her for the delicious treats she baked for the family; for encouraging her children to never stop learning; for her love of laughter and the vibrant spirit that was such a hallmark of who she was. But Linda also thanked her mother for the last seven years of her life, when Alvira wrestled with dementia, Linda and her family walked a road they never would have chosen. She thanked her for the wonderful people that her mom’s illness brought into her life – caregivers, family members of her mom’s care facility roommates who shone kindness and empathy onto their path. But she also thanked her mom for the anger, the fear – all the emotions we’d rather not have to face.
Linda didn’t elaborate on what those gifts taught her, but I imagine they might be similar to the lessons any of us glean from hard experiences – the ability to accept help that only comes from the vulnerability of not having everything under our control; the perspective we gain that enables us to savor joyful moments all the more deeply; the healing liberation wrought from forgiving others who have profoundly wronged us; the empathy we later feel for others who have suffered similarly.
Do you remember some of Jesus’ last words on the cross? He said of the soldiers actively responsible for his unbearably painful death: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.” Picking up our cross and bearing it as best we are able means, in part, that we refuse to let suffering or even trauma turn us into bitter victims, but rather that we watch for and water whatever signs of life sprout forth from the furrowed, barren ground of our pain. It’s not about redemptive suffering or fetishisizing trauma; it’s simply a decision to follow Jesus’ example by making room for, even fighting for, healing and renewal in the light of devastation. It’s a bold claim, made with our wholeness hanging in the balance, that the essence of the Christian story is true – that death, and suffering, are not the end of the story, but that we worship a God dedicated to somehow bringing light out of even our darkest moments.
This is a paradox we only understand by living through it. And it leads us to our next paradox: “those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel (literally the “Good News”), will save it.”
In Greek the word translated as “life” is actually psyche – literally “soul” or “self.” As a woman well aware of the history of my faith tradition, I have to admit I’m a bit wary of giving away my self in order to save it. Because as with the language of cross-bearing, this phrase has so often been used to push people to the edge of society and keep them their, sacrificing their own desires and dreams in order to care for others, all in the name of being a good Christian woman, wife, slave, child, etc. It’s a thread that’s come painfully to the fore of the news cycle lately as Judge Kavanagh’s confirmation hearings have exposed the lack of nuance with which many Christians still view women’s reproductive lives, and as some Christian leaders and politicians speak in defense of so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people ahead of the coming elections.
Jesus, however, had an excellent track record of putting women, children, and others with the least amount of social power front and center and giving them the recognition and agency every human deserves. So let’s assume he wouldn’t buy into the interpretation that we must give up what makes us us in order to follow him.
During our Bible study discussion, someone offered another way to think about it: what if the part Jesus invites us to lose isn’t our God-given personalities, passions, dreams, or desires – what if Jesus is inviting us to lose the ego that holds so hard to our safety and security that we never risk growing or opening ourselves to another, to a new idea, to a more loving, compassionate way of being?
At Town Day yesterday we did something a little risky – we invited people to sit down with strangers and share something meaningful about their lives with each other. A lot of people gave us crazy looks and walked away, but some were willing to risk loosening up their egos to make a new connection. One person shared that their first words as a child were “I do it myself,” a statement that heralded just how independent and strong-willed an individual they would become. But as an adult who now works at home and lives on their own, what began as an empowering battle-cry began to highlight an unmet need for community. This person had gifts begging to be shared; a faith community seemed like a place where they could share not only those gifts but also life together – finding other people to walk with through the joyful and difficult times.
I didn’t mean for this sermon to end up here, but it occurred to me as I wrote it that this is why we’re focusing on the stewardship of our time, personal talents, and energy this fall – because as another Bible study attendee offered up, losing your life to save it is really about dismantling the obstacles that keep us from blessing one another with our full selves, that prevent us from vulnerably sharing life together – including the crosses we all must bear at some point. There’s a true sweetness to savor, in turns out, in making a meal for someone else when you could be watching Netflix (actually you can probably do both at the same time…). There’s an unexpected sense of well-being and peace in visiting someone with dementia even though you have no idea whether they’ll recognize you; or in offering, although it made you feel awkward to offer, a listening ear to someone struggling; in telling a friend you’ve been praying for them even if you’ve been raised not to talk about religion; in singing or reading in front of the congregation even if you get stage fright or in greeting worshipers even though you’re afraid you’ll forget someone’s name.
Acts that push us a bit beyond what feels safe and comfortable open up a beautiful space inside us and create relationships that make it that much easier for us to feel Jesus, whether internally as a spiritual presence or externally through other people, walking alongside us as we carry our various crosses.
And that, indeed, is Good News. Amen.