Lord, we are not here today at our initiative, but at your behest. Few of us were out looking for you; indeed, we knew not how even to search for you. Few of us sought to make our lives count for something; indeed, we knew not even what it would mean for our lives to count. Then you came to us. Then you reached out to us, grabbed us, embraced us, beckoned us, called us. In the words of a friend, in something we once heard in a sermon, in some unexpected moment of revelation and vision, in ways ordinary and extraordinary, you revealed yourself to us and asked us to work with you. We are, therefore, here today as those who have had a claim laid upon our lives, those who feel summoned. Give us gifts we need to do your will. Strengthen us to fulfill the tasks that you set before us. Keep calling us, for in your vocation is our salvation. Amen.
The Rev. William H. Willimon
What does it mean to lose one’s life? What does it mean when Jesus says that in order to find life we must in fact give up our own lives?
I think it is a little ironic given all the talk in the media lately about a professional baseball strike by a bunch of over paid, over indulged ball players, that our national past time might offer us some insights into these questions. As far as I know, baseball is the only sport that regularly uses the term “sacrifice.” In fact, besides some religious broadcasting, watching a baseball game on TV may be the only place you ever hear the word “sacrifice” uttered in our self absorbed society. I love the idea of a sacrifice fly. The batter gives up his chance for success to further the success of his team. The batter is out, but the base runner advances and is declared safe. It is a great idea. I let go of my need in order to advance a larger need.
I once heard George Carlin do this great stand-up routine comparing the softness of baseball to the hardness of football. He said – In football you crush someone! In baseball you “catch flies.” In football you punt! In baseball you bunt. Football is played on the gridiron. Baseball is played on a field. In football you drive down the field and score! In baseball you “go home.” In football you kill! In baseball you “sacrifice.”
For Christians, the cross is the ultimate symbol of sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus dying on the cross so that we might have life. The sacrifice of Jesus giving up all that he had so that we might have everything. But like the word “sacrifice,” the symbol of the cross has itself lost its meaning for many in our culture. Jesus said that we are to take up our crosses and follow him. What does that mean in a culture where the cross is used primarily as a fashion symbol for Allen Iverson and Madonna? What does that mean in a culture where I see more crosses on the MTV Music Awards than I do on a Sunday morning? Not too long ago, I heard about someone at one of those jewelry kiosks in the mall who saw a woman approach the sales person and ask about buying a cross for her necklace. The sales person, happy to help said, “Oh yes, we have a large variety of crosses. Would you like a plain cross or one of the ones with the little man on it?”
When I was a senior in highschool, I picked as my year book quote part of a passage from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Philosopher. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t pick it because I was an unusually wise 18 year old. In fact, the quote I used barely won out over one from the rock band Pink Floyd – We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year. Running over the same old ground, have you found the same old fears? But I got lucky. For some reason I did not go with the usual adolescent angst anthem, instead I went with a passage that deeply impressed me as a young man, and it still does. “The thing,” Kierkegaard wrote, “is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find the truth, . . . for which I can live and die.”
To find the truth for which we can live and die. One of the greatest fallacies of our time, it seems to me, is the belief that we can live an uncalled life, that we can exist successfully and happily while living a life not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self. And being free means being able to do that very thing. But this isn’t freedom it is delusion.
We are all going to lose our lives. Whether we like it or not. In the grand scope of things, we are all going to die and death certainly is the ultimate loss of life. But on a different level we all lose our lives in other ways too. Many people lose their lives in the pursuit of their careers. They give their profession all that they have, all of their energy, time and focus. They subvert their own needs to the needs of the job. They hope this will be fulfilling but in their forties many people find themselves in a bit of a crisis. One day they wake up profoundly unfulfilled and ask – “What have I accomplished so far in my life?” “What have I given my life too?” “I know what I do but I am no longer sure who I am.” “Is this all there is in life?” “Is this all that I can hope for.”
Some of us lose our lives in the lives of our children. We give all that we have in order to give them everything, only to discover that they don’t need and shouldn’t have everything. Some of us lose our lives in pursuit of a good name or a good social standing. We work hard to develop the right friends, to create the right image, we struggle to keep up with the toys, trips and parties of our friends. We place our trust in the power of image, confusing image and reality, only to one day discover that all images are hollow lies designed to obscure the truth.
There is an old joke about a mother who was preparing pancakes for her sons John 5 and Alex 3. As she was cooking the boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. The mother saw an opportunity to teach a moral less and so she said, “If Jesus was sitting here he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.’” John quickly turned to his younger brother and said, “Okay, Alex, you be Jesus!”
The question it seems to me is not whether or not we will lose our lives. The question is not whether or not we will sacrifice. The question is will we lose our lives for the right thing? Will we sacrifice our base hit to advance the right runner? Our careers are important. Our children and our standing in the community are important, and anything worth anything demands some level of sacrifice. But Jesus tells us that it is only through losing ourselves in him and his good news that we can ever truly find ourselves again. It is only in trying to be like Jesus that we discover who God intended us to be. Jeremiah knew this – “Your words were found and I ate them,” he said. I swallowed your good news God, it became a part of me and I became a part of it and in the process I found myself. St. Paul knew this too – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
Christ is the source of life like the sun is the source of light. We can no more depend on our own efforts to gain life anymore than we can hope to grow our gardens using only a flashlight. Jesus’ words to us today are not an extreme command attainable only by a few spiritually gifted individuals. Rather, they are words that express something essentially true about the nature of existence. The way of the cross is the way to life.
It is said that some time after St. Augustine became a Christian he was approached on the street by a former mistress. When he saw her he turned and walked the other way. Surprised, the woman called out, “Augustine, it is I!” Augustine, as he kept going the other way, answered her, “Yes, but it is not I.”
We will all be transformed by something, if not many things. We may lose ourselves in all kinds of causes for all kinds of reasons. The trick is to find the truth to live and die for that is really true. The trick is to lose ourselves in the only thing that can give us back our real selves in return. May we all discover that Christ is that way, that truth and that life. Amen.
William J. Carl III, Church People Beware, C.S.S. Publishing Company, 1992.
The Rev. Richard J. Fairchild