There have been so many heart-breaking images in our news this week, coming out of the Texas coastline: acres and acres of water where land and streets should be, punctuated by rooftops; houses and businesses reduced to matchsticks; elderly patients in hospital beds surrounded by water waiting to be evacuated. There have been heart-warming images as well: a person in a wheel-chair being air-lifted into a helicopter; young volunteers comforting other children in shelters; a human chain formed from land into the torrent to rescue a man from his car when the fast flood waters overtook him. I’m sure you each have images that have struck you particularly, and stuck with you.
And we here in New Jersey know that even after the rain has stopped, and the rivers have crested, and the flood waters have receded, that it is only the very beginning of the recovery and restoration efforts. It will take months and years, and for so many it will not be reclaiming what was lost, but starting all over again, as we saw so clearly with Hurricane Sandy five years ago.
But there is joy in the midst of tragedy – neighbors helping neighbors, strangers putting their lives on the line to save someone else (and their pets), people coming together and forming impromptu community, really seeing the common humanity and worth that we all share. We saw this after Sandy, we saw it after Katrina, we saw it after 9/11; and we knew that it was good – a good way to live, a good way to be. So often people have said to me, “Why couldn’t we keep that sense of goodness and kindness and community going after we got back to our previous lives? Why did that fade?”
In part, I think it is because the tragedy or the disaster pulled us out of ourselves, and made us see that our survival – physical, emotional, and spiritual – depended upon recognizing our need for one another. Once the immediate crisis and its aftermath passes, we can retreat from needing the community and our neighbors so much, and we forget how good it was to be connecting with others on such a real level. Our ego and our self-focus takes center stage again, and become the main drivers of our attitudes and actions. That’s part of the meaning of Jesus’ words to the disciples in today’s Gospel when he says: “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 will find it.”
Those words of Jesus often puzzle us, or make us uncomfortable – deny ourselves; what does that mean? How do we do that? Is Jesus asking us to be doormats, or to give up all that we cherish or delight in? A more helpful word here, would be renounce – renounce our own goals and authority and control over our life, in favor of Christ’s goals, authority and control. We’ve already promised that, in fact, in our baptism, and we affirm that as individuals and as a Christian community whenever we are present at a baptism. We promise to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God; to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and to renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. And we promise to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior; to put our whole trust in his grace and love; and to follow and obey him as our Lord.
These renunciations and promises are not just a one-off, not something to be affirmed on the day and then put on the shelf, but they are the day-by-day expectations that Jesus has for us. We are to renounce ourselves and follow him. The writer Fred Craddock has said that if we were to imagine our lives as a great treasure, Jesus calls us to give that treasure away fifty-cents at a time, each and every day. We give our lives away when we can take our focus off ourselves, our desires, our wants and fears, and focus on others. The primary image for the Church and for Christians that St. Paul uses is the Body of Christ – the whole Body, knit together in God’s love. And so the more we follow Jesus, the more we grow in Christ-likeness, the more we must be for others, as much as we are for ourselves.
That’s hard, that’s challenging – and it is also very rewarding. The more we get beyond ourselves, the more we are connected to others – even those who are strangers to us – the more we will see and know of the creativity, and goodness, and love of God, which is far greater than whatever our individual conception or experience of God can be. The writer of the First Letter to Timothy uses the phrase “the life that really is life,” to describe Christian faithfulness (1 Tim 6:19). And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? A life that really is life – full and rich in joy, love, peace, and goodness. But in the paradox of Christian living, Jesus has made it clear that we can’t get to that “life that is really life” alone or under our own power. We get there by following Jesus as Lord, as master and commander of our lives, and we get there in the company of all those who have given themselves to Christ. And then we live out that life in the service of the world and its people that God has made.
It takes work – each and every day, giving away a part of ourselves, our time, our attention, our patience, our effort, our compassion, fifty cents at a time. And in his Letter to the Romans, Paul has given us some examples of how we may live Christ’s abundant life for and with others:
- Love genuinely and mutually.
- Focus on the good.
- Show honor to others.
- Hope fully, suffer patiently, pray and keep on praying.
- Help out other Christians, and welcome, feed, and shelter those who are strangers to you.
- Bless those who give you a hard time.
- Put yourself in the place of others in both their joy and sorrow.
- Live harmoniously with others and don’t be prideful and arrogant.
- Always take the high road and seek the peace and common good of all.
This is the way to live “the life that is really life”. It is a gift we have to offer to the world around us, an opportunity to take the God-given goodness of the human spirit that comes to the fore in times of tragedy and disaster, and make it a reality in our daily lives and in the lives of those we meet, for Jesus’ sake.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 101
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 3, 2017 .