“Cost of Living”
April 13, 2014
On these Sundays during Lent I led the adult education sessions as we
looked at the small and disturbing letter of James. If you missed these
sessions, maybe that’s just as well. Each week we encountered words that
troubled us, upset the usual way we thought about our faith and our lives, and
moved us to talk with more honesty about ourselves than we might have expected.
I’m grateful to those intrepid souls who gathered in Rockwood Hall and
talked about their misgivings as well as their commitments.
When we began this
series I had no idea that our conversations on these Sundays would lead us to
the question posed by Palm Sunday and the week ahead: What is the cost? What
will it cost me to live by my values?
That’s the question for us, isn’t it? How can we hold on to our
principles and succeed?
Is it possible for us to gain the world and keep our souls?
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The
Great Gatsby, someone says, “I hear you lost all your money in the stock
“Yes,” replies Gatsby. “Lost every penny in the crash . . . but I lost
all that was important to me in the boom.”
Or as one corporate success with a six-figure income put it: “Once I
reached the top of the ladder and looked around, I realized that all the
struggle, all the costs to my family and friendships, all the sacrifices I had
made to reach the pinnacle were not worth what I found there and the lack of
meaning I felt there.”
These are words of caution to us all. In our striving, in our gaining,
we face the risk of losing everything important. And then, what can we give to
gain back our souls?
Is there any good news for those who are successful—or on their way to
success? That is to say, is there any good news for this congregation? Is there a way of life that brings achievement
without robbing us of the real life that we seek?
I once saw a sign in a store announcing: “We make Easter easy.”
“Oh, that would be nice,” I thought. We have been claimed by the
Resurrected One, however, and we know that Easter makes its demands. Following
the risen Christ has its consequences. The mid-twentieth century pastor and
theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the “cost of discipleship.” He famously
said that, “When Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.” Maybe we are a
little more open to hearing those words and discovering their meaning for our
lives as Lent comes to an end.
Look at Jesus as he heads into the city.
What we see is one human being pursuing his course with resolute determination.
Of course, it could have been different. Jesus could
have stayed in relative obscurity and complete safety.
Instead he made the difficult decision to act in
accordance with his call. He chose to live out his vocation—to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the
captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to proclaim the year of God’s
favor. He could have quit—at any time. Instead, as it has been said, he did not
flinch at the critical moment.
We follow along this morning as Jesus comes into Jerusalem to the
praise of the multitude. Within a week he is carried out of the city by a
throng of people shouting crucify him. This is enough like our own lives that
it seems not only real, but familiar.
You pour yourself into a project, doing your best work,
only to meet with criticism.
The office is restructured. You think your job is secure
only to find that it is gone two weeks later.
New people at the top simply aren’t interested in the
gifts you bring.
The worst can happen on the most beautiful of days.
Life does not come with a very extensive guarantee. We make our
commitments—as we do everything, really—with a faith that dares to step out
with no iron‑clad assurances.
In a large part,
“following Jesus” is a matter of giving over more of life to God. We give over
our fear. We set aside our reluctance and move ahead. We trust in the goodness
of God that we have seen in Jesus even if that goodness is not readily apparent
in our own lives.
In Jesus we will discover the God who suffers as we suffer—who knows
what it is like to be wounded and hurt deeply;
in Jesus we
see the God who knows what it means to be rejected, to be stretched to the
limits of life;
in Jesus we see the God who finds the courage
for life even in the face of death.
In Jesus taking up his cross we see him as he really
is: the revelation of God's complete self-giving love, a love that means
forgiveness and life.
And taking up our own cross?
For those who originally heard it, the demand to take up your cross
could literally have meant their death. In the ensuing centuries many have
learned this painful truth.
The call to discipleship in the United States of the 21st
century rarely brings a death sentence with it, however. We live lives that are
vastly different from the lives of the early followers of Jesus. Still the
cross shapes our lives today.
A cross offers a choice: you can take it up or leave it. A cross is not
the result of genetics or aging or the mistakes we all keep making or even the
tragedies that fill every life. It is not what people usually mean when they
speak of a “cross to bear.”
Seen in the light of Christ, a cross is not something that destroys. It
is that which makes us who we are—most fully ourselves. In Jesus taking up his
cross we see him as he really is: the revelation of God's complete self-giving
love, shown in suffering, a love that means forgiveness and life. Understood in
this way, the cross is about courage in following the crucified and risen
Christ. It is about courage in living the demanding faith that is Christianity.
Our crosses will show us to be people freely forgiven by the love of God
and—by God's grace—able to show that same love in the often challenging and
difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Taking up the cross is about
accepting those challenges and both the threat and the potential they contain.
At the end of the day, the question for us as we seek success is “In all
of our effort, have we become the people we swore
we never wanted to be?” Taking up our
cross means being faithful to all that God created us to be, faithful to all we
want to be.
This is a week in which we look at the death
of Jesus. But first we must enlarge our own concept of death. Death is more
than the last moment of life. We die all our lives. Life begins to be limited
from the moment we are born, and continues acquiring limitations until we come
to the last, final limit.
When we look at the death of Jesus then,
we are really looking at the life of
Jesus—how he took up the conflicts of life, how he embraced the journey of
life. Jesus embraced death just as he embraced whatever life brought him—his
joys and his sorrows, his conflicts and his confrontations for the sake of his
message and his life, his way of living.
The Christian story knows the gladness of Palm Sunday—and celebrates
God’s power and love.
But the Christian story also knows the horrible defeat of Good
Friday—and still celebrates God’s power and love.
Ultimately we know a love that is stronger than death. Even on Palm
Sunday and Good Friday we turn our eyes toward the empty tomb.
That love urges us forward when we would stay where we are and be at ease.
That love urges us forward when we would stay where we are, paralyzed
The liberating truth is that we don’t have to be Christians. We make
the choice to follow Jesus—or not.
You can, if you choose, walk out the door this morning and go your own
way. Or you can walk out that door and do the difficult work of treating people
with kindness and decency, standing up for human dignity. The choice is given
to each one of us—at all times.
I believe that if we make the choice to follow Christ, God’s Spirit
will give us unimagined power to live the life we choose. I believe that when a
congregation makes the choice to follow Christ, the resources for living out
those choices will become readily available.
A word of warning, of course.
It’s so easy to be lulled by the picture of Jesus
humbly arriving in Jerusalem to the acclaim of the people that we would ignore
the rest of the story.
This week we remember that when the
religious and governmental authorities ran into conflict with this human Jesus,
they were deadly serious. The week seemed to start out so well. By Friday,
however, everyone found out just how human Jesus was: human enough to bleed;
human enough to die.
Jesus died. He died still being faithful
to the Source of Life that he knew as a loving parent. Even his cry of despair:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—a cry that chills our very
souls—was not a shout into the meaningless darkness that was swallowing him up.
Jesus brought all of his human fear and anxiety to the God he trusted and put
it there once and for all.
Something happened to change everything.
Something happened to change the course of history, the shape of life even as
we know it today.
Jesus gave up his life—he died and was
buried. And somehow we have found new
life because of that. We weren’t able to create this new life on our own.
Now we are set free to trust God—even in
our own suffering—knowing that God was faithful to Jesus even in his suffering.
We are set free to trust God—even when
life goes well—knowing that the whole point of Jesus’ life and death was that
we might be fully alive.
We are free to trust God—even in our
dying—because this human being Jesus was faithful even to death and has thereby
opened up life eternal for all.