Lose It To Find It
We all know how to lose our life so that it is lost. The trick is to figure out how to lose one’s life so that it will be found. And the key to that mystery is to lose our life for Jesus’ purpose – to love, anyway.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Creator. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The Class of 2020 didn’t get what most high school seniors get – no prom, no senior skip day, no normal commencement, no “safe and sober grad night” – but they’ve probably had more attention than any graduating class in history. LeBron James and Barack Obama celebrated them; John Krasinsky’s YouTube pandemic news show, “Some Good News,” held a star-studded virtual senior prom and a virtual commencement. Journalists have interviewed, photographed and editorialized them; every manner of celebrity from Beyoncé to Oprah to Rick Steves recorded commencement speeches for them.
The Class of 2020 is probably suffering from advice overload. And yet in this morning’s passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers more advice; disturbing, troubling advice; advice that feels more like a threat than a pep talk. He’s sending the twelve disciples out to teach as he has taught, to heal as he has healed. He warns that this won’t make them popular with everyone. Although there have been crowds of grateful and amazed people, Jesus is rubbing some folks, powerful folks, the wrong way. Jesus warns the disciples they will be maligned, as he has been. They shouldn’t expect the way of the cross to be easy, and they shouldn’t be surprised if close relationships are uprooted. Just in time for Father’s Day, he warns that even their own families could turn against them.
In spite of all this, the disciples are to tell in the light what Jesus has said to them in the dark; and what they have heard whispered, they are to proclaim from the housetops. What is it that they are to proclaim that’s so divisive, so controversial? What’s the message that’s going to get them into big trouble? Love. That God is a God of love who welcomes the prodigal home with open arms.[i] That we are not to return evil for evil, but rather, we are to answer evil with love. Above all else, says Jesus, we are to love God, and love each other.[ii]
That doesn’t sound very controversial, does it? It doesn’t sound very likely to stir up conflict – well, until you think about it. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.[iii] Turn the other cheek.[iv] Love, says Jesus, means we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and take in the stranger.[v] He shows us it means we are to touch the unclean, and heal them of their suffering.[vi] Like Jesus, we’re to share our table with those rejected by everyone else, and we are to enjoy it.[vii]
The problem is that many people have a great deal invested in not loving. Entire populations identify themselves by their hatred of some other group. Whole industries thrive because people hate each other so much they’ll go to war. And then of course, there’s the closer-to-home failure to love: Those times we refuse to let go of resentments and grudges; when we’re so indifferent that those who suffer feel invisible. It’s so easy to hate people who hurt us, and even easier to be indifferent, that Jesus knew that spreading a message of love would cause his disciples pain, even put their lives in jeopardy. Social relationships in ancient Palestine were so structured that if you stepped outside the norms, you risked being cut off from family or clan, and that was literally a matter of life and death.[viii] You could risk everything by the wrong kind of association with the wrong kind of people. A week ago we celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving vs. Virginia, the case that, just 53 years ago, finally struck down laws against interracial marriage. So this kind of rigid social structure isn’t ancient history.
Maybe even more difficult is that in order to love people, especially those a culture has considered “the wrong kind of people,” the disciples will need to listen to people’s stories. They will need to hear people’s perspectives, even if that challenges the their old beliefs or carefully constructed defenses. But that is exactly what those who follow Jesus are called to do. We are called to love each other in ways that show forth God’s love. We are called to stick our necks out for Jesus, so to speak, because that is what brings life. Jesus closes the passage with a paradoxical saying, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It sounds more like a warning than advice, but what Jesus has in mind is a gift. Think about what it’s like to do the work you’re best at doing and like to do best. Think about hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy. In all these experiences, two things happen: (1) you lose yourself, and (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual. This is even more the case with love. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “When you love somebody, it is no longer yourself who is the center of your own universe. It is the one you love who is. You forget yourself. You deny yourself. You give of yourself, so that by all the rules of arithmetical logic there should be less of yourself than there was to start with. Only by a curious paradox there is more. You feel that at last you really are yourself.”[ix]
Jesus isn’t telling his disciples that in order to follow him, in order to be good Christians, they have to reject their families or be crucified. He’s telling them what they have to do is love. Love! Love their families; love their fathers and mothers; love everybody. But in so doing, they will risk alienating those who insist on hating. In loving, they will be pushed out of comfortable complacencies. They will be disappointed, and sometimes they will be hurt. Love always takes courage. And yet, in loving, they will lose themselves in a way that they find themselves; they will abide in God because as the First Letter of John tells us, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.[x]
What does it look like to love as Christ would have us love? One of the reasons we gather in community is because we believe that when we study Scripture together, and enter into prayerful discernment together, we will arrive not just at a better answer but at a more faithful answer to these questions. Last week, Calvary’s Session, our governing board, adopted a Statement Affirming Calvary’s Commitment to Antiracism.[xi] The full statement will be available for you to read on Calvary’s website soon, if it isn’t there already. The statement recognizes that anti-Black racism is deeply embedded in the history and culture of our country, and then confesses, “We do not always live the basic Christian truth that, just as God loves all of us without exception, we are called to love all people. Our choice to align ourselves with love requires that we actively and tirelessly work against anti-Black racism wherever we can, however we can.” The statement recommits Calvary “to the struggle for racial justice,” affirming that “We are one in Christ: if others are in pain, we are in pain.” It concludes, “We recommit to recognizing and dismantling racism and unconscious bias in our own hearts and minds, in the institution of the church, and in the broader culture. We will take action toward these goals.” Calvary’s task now will be to put flesh on that promise. And to put flesh on it in a way that is grace-filled, accepts people where they are, shames no one, and offers hope to everyone. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It is God’s promise that even if the very acts of peacemaking, of reconciliation, of healing, of loving to which Christ calls us lead to loss or alienation, they also lead to life.
Mother Teresa is rumored to have kept a poem entitled, “Anyway”[xii] by her bedside. It lifts up the less public, more everyday ways that all of us can live the new life we’re given in Christ. “People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;” says the poem. “Forgive them anyway.” Be kind anyway. Be honest and frank anyway. Do good anyway. The poem echoes Jesus’ words: People will malign you, persecute you, your own family may turn on you if you insist on loving as I have taught you to love. Do it anyway. Love anyway.
Class of 2020, I grieve with you that you were deprived of the second semester of your senior year. It’s a big loss; a real loss. But I hope that when you look back on it, you’ll remember that your class was the one that loved your families enough, your classmates and teachers enough, the world enough to help keep them from getting sick or maybe even dying. Love means being disappointed and yet still showing up. Love, as your soon-to-be new pastor Marci Glass put it last week, is “the daily act of being undone.” That is the way of the cross. But in being undone by love we are remade, reborn, recreated in love and to love, and that is what new life in Christ looks like. That is what losing yourself to find yourself looks like.
My son graduated from high school on Friday. His school made a video salute to the seniors that was full of advice from alums, including one of his school’s more prominent alums, the Governor of the State of California. Another alum asked a question you’ve probably heard before; it’s intended to be a challenge to follow your dreams: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” But author Brené Brown has reframed that into a better question not only for our graduates, but for all of us: “What’s worth doing even if I fail?”[xiii] Jesus’ answer to that question is, “Love anyway.” Thank you, class of 2020, for loving anyway. May you continue to love deeply, and to lose yourselves to love in ways that help you find yourselves. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.