Sheepscott Community Church September 13, 2009
Isaiah 50: 4-9a
James 3: 1-12
Mark 8: 27-38
To Lose a Life Is to Save a Life
Several points of today’s gospel reading lie at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps none is more central than Jesus’ statement, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.” This is addressed to us as surely as it was to the disciples and the crowd that was with Jesus that day.
The message is that God gave us life to spend, not to keep or hoard. If we live carefully, always thinking of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But, if we spend life for others, if we forget health, wealth, time and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and so, for those for whom he lived, and died, and lives, then we are gaining life, winning life, saving our lives all the time because it is for Jesus and the gospel’s sake that we do what we do.
But not simply. Saying it that way has the hollow ring of duty and ideology. I believe that while we do act out for Jesus’ sake and the gospel, it is because we want to. We do it out of love, God’s divine love working through our own human love that grows through our ongoing choices.
What would have happened in the world if scientists and inventors had not taken risks, even sometimes with their own bodies, to find cures for disease and improve the lives of other human beings? And that’s only one category of people. What about mothers and fathers who say no to themselves and yes, not only to their own children, but to the children of others to coach them in sports or to teach them in music or languages or art. Or to be Girl Scout or Boy Scout leaders and take them to places they might not otherwise see? Introduce them to the world they might not otherwise come in contact with? What if instead they had chosen to stay home and watch Melrose Place? The very essence of life is in risking and spending it, not in saving and hoarding it.
An extreme example of such a risk taker, such a life-spender is a fourth-century monk named Telemachus. He had retired early on to the desert in an Eastern country to be alone in prayer, meditation and fasting. He never sought anything but contact with God. But he felt like something was missing, something wasn’t quite right, and one day as he rose from prayer, he got it. He realized that his life was based not on selfless love but on selfish love of God. If he would serve God, he must serve others. The desert might be a good place to prepare for a life of service by coming to terms with personal strengths and weaknesses, as did John the Baptist and Jesus, but then it is time to leave the desert, to go out among others, to find a way to be of service in the larger human community.
Telemachus had been touched by the Spirit of God both to enter the desert and in time to leave the desert. He set out for Rome, then, the greatest city in the world, and which, by that time was officially, nominally Christian following the edict of the late Emperor Constantine. What must Telemachus’s surprise have been when he followed along the victory procession of the general Stilicho through the streets of Rome, only to arrive at the coliseum, where gladiatorial games were being held to honor the general and his victories. It seemed that although the Christians were no longer being fed to the lions for the amusement of the populace, the gladiators who had been captured in war had to fight and kill each other in order to bring the holiday mood of the city to its full crescendo.
As Telemachus found his way into the area of the arena with the others, the chariot races were finishing up, and the gladiators were preparing to fight. They advanced into the arena with the greeting, “Hail, Caesar! [This was Honorius Caesar.] We who are about to die salute you!” The fighting began and Telemachus was horrified that these men, for whom in his view Christ had died, were now killing each other to amuse a supposedly Christian populace. As the story goes, according to the account written by Theodoret of Cyrus in The Ecclesiastical History, “he [Telemachus] went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another.
“The spectators of the slaughter were indignant,” he went on, “and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in these bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor [Honorius] was informed of this, he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”
A more popular account is considerably more dramatic, wherein Telemachus stood between the gladiators, and for a moment they stopped––shades of the lone man standing in front of the tank in Tianneman Square––but the crowd roared and the gladiators pushed the old man in the hermit’s robe aside and resumed fighting. Again he came between them, and the crowd began to throw stones at him and urged the gladiators to kill him and get him out of the way. At the flash of a gladiator’s sword, Telemachus lay dead, and the crowd went silent. They were suddenly shocked that a holy man should die in such a way and apparently understood and internalized what this larger exercise of killing meant.
The gladiatorial games actually historically ended that day, and they never began again. Telemachus, by his dying, had ended them. As Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said of him, “His death was more useful to mankind that his life.” By losing his life he had done more than he ever could have done had he remained husbanding that same life out in the desert. God gave us life to spend and not to keep.
Don’t panic. It’s unlikely that you will have a comparable experience. More likely is the example I offered earlier of the coaching dad who spends hours every week as a volunteer, helping not only his kids’ teams but those of other parents’ kids as well. How about those who serve on the town school board or fill the less-than-desirable post of animal control officer? How about our own choir, who again under Carroll’s direction, offered their gift of song to those at the supper at Second Congregational Church, on Wednesday night? What about teachers who every year spend out of their own pockets to ensure that the kids have what they need for supplies and little extras in this tight economy? That is not hanging on to our lives in their several dimensions, including the economic dimension, until our knuckles are white. Exercise fiscal sense, yes, so you don’t necessarily become dependent on the state, although that can happen no matter how careful we think we’ve been, exercise good sense, but open your hands. Let the life and the wherewithal flow out of your hands, through your hands. That is God’s way.
Let me bring up another name that lends itself to today’s gospel in this area of economic considerations: E. F. Schumacher. You may recognize his name as the author of the now-classic, Small Is Beautiful. A prophet in the guise of an economist and philosopher, Schumacher was born in 1911 in Germany and went to England in the 1930s as a Rhodes scholar. He was detained there as an enemy alien during World War II and was sent to work on a farm in rural northern England. That experience of common productive labor influenced his formation as an economist. During that sojourn he also had a Christian conversion experience.
In verse 36 of this morning’s gospel, Jesus asks, “What good is it, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, his life? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul, for his life?” Schumacher was asking that question in his work, having come to it after the war when he worked as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in Germany and as head of planning of the British Coal Board. He came to believe that traditional economics, despite its scientific pretensions, was really a kind of religion in which growth, efficiency and production were the ultimate measures of value. In this way economists ignored the spiritual dimensions of human beings while promoting a civilization potentially headed for catastrophe.
In Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, and subtitled “Economics as if People Mattered,” Schumacher described an economy regulated by concern for permanence, equality, reduction of desires, the alleviation of suffering, the respect for beauty, and the dignity of work. He implicitly called into contrast an economic system sustained by waste, short-term savings, and the stimulation of avarice and envy. He called for a reverent rather than violent attitude to God’s handiwork. Do you see the connection between what he thought, what he wrote and what he did? How do we take care of one another across the board? God gave us life to spend and not to keep. Risk and spend life, not save and hoard it.
So Schumacher, who gave his life to study and thought and hard work that continues to benefit us with its visionary approach to the ecological evolution of our interconnected systems based on economics, Schumacher was like Telemachus, who had no intention of giving up his life that day in the arena and changing Roman history and so, our inherited history. For both men, I think it was being in and with God in the moment, like Jesus, saying yes to the call. Telemachus had had his years of preparation in the desert, like Jesus’ days, and Schumacher had had his years in the “desert” of rural England where he came to know himself and his relation to God in a way he had not before.
It’s important to note that God’s scope is not limited to our view of what theology is or church or even church in the world. God simply is, as he said of himself to Moses: I Am Who Am. God is Being and sustains all life in himself. Without the breath of his spirit we are not. And so, God doesn’t limit Godself to our ideas or rules or roles. As the scripture says in John 3: 8: “The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
A third focus in this morning’s gospel is Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, who in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” answered, “You are the Christ.” After Peter made that confession, Jesus spoke about what lay before him in Jerusalem: suffering, death and resurrection. Peter immediately remonstrated with Jesus, “God forbid that should happen to you.” Jesus’ response was quick and angry: “Get behind me you Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” Jesus’ anger can be attributed to the fact that he was dealing with what he knew he had to face. He didn’t want to die, and he knew he had powers he could use for conquest. Peter had voiced the temptations that Jesus himself was having in his humanity, a redux of what had happened in the desert, following his baptism and leading to his public life.
How can we be with a friend or a family member who is facing a difficult time in a more helpful way than Peter was with Jesus? Whether that “difficult time” means loss of life, as Jesus was facing, while hoping for some understanding if not some consolation from his friends, loss of health, a job, a relationship. Peter’s response to Jesus is usually what our first knee-jerk response is: God forbid this should happen to you. Not what the person needs to hear.
For example, if a person is at the end of her life and she knows it, she is no longer expecting the miracle of healing––although, as always, God being sovereign, that can happen––but if she is ready to face the end, she doesn’t need us to exclaim, “Oh no, God forbid that should happen.” She needs us to listen, to be with her, not necessarily saying a word, but just being with. This is holy listening, if you want to give it a name. This is how I believe God listens, and we are all capable of it when we get out of the way, not being self-conscious, but losing our life and letting God have God’s way with it.
I’ve seen this kind of listening and have been blessed in my life to experience it myself when I needed it. It is a great gift from one member of the the Body of Christ to another. Be quiet and listen. You know, when the choir sings in the Introit, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”? That feels like what I’m calling “God-listening.” God can be present through us if we will allow it in the most difficult of circumstances. As hard to bear as some moments in this human life are, they are eminently more bearable when we share the burden with each other, with community as community. Amen.