Year A, Proper 7
David Eubank is an American, ex special forces who, until recently, lived in Mosul, Iraq with his wife and three children ages 16, 14, and 11. They are there as a part of a relief group he founded rescuing civilians, and providing basic relief in the form of medicine, shelter, and solidarity. Earlier this month a video of him working with the Iraqi military and rescuing a little girl in pigtails from a bombed out Pepsi factory exploded the internet. The little girl had been stranded on a freeway just outside of the factory in an area completely controlled by ISIS. Surrounded by dozens of her community, all shot as they tried to flee, David and his group were called in to try and rescue as many of the wounded as they could. It was an active war zone and several armored vehicles and Iraqi military had already been unsuccessful in their attempt to take the freeway. As he followed a tank onto the road, bullets whizzing past his head, this seasoned veteran thought he would surely die. Usually an optimist, David thought to himself, “If I die, my wife and children would be proud of me.”
Wrestling with the reality and possibility of death is nothing new to David or his wife Karen. When they were first doing this work in Burma and discovered they were pregnant, they struggled to decide if they could continue with what is, at least in their understanding, God’s call for their lives. David remembers thinking to himself about raising children in a war zone, “if they die, how could we live with ourselves.” In the end they decided to continue doing what they were doing despite having a family, a decision that is, as you might well imagine, not without significant controversy. Are they noble? Naive? Careless? Foolish? Heroic? When I was listening to their story this week on the radio, I admit, I could not decide. To David’s mind there’s no better way to raise their children, placing them and their lives in close proximity to a world deeply in need of caring and love and solidarity. He and his wife believe they cannot isolate their own children off from the hurts of the world. They love their kids, he says, as much as the next parent. The challenge for them is that they love Iraq’s children as much as their own as well.
Jesus says, in this morning’s gospel, “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.” Jesus has been instructing the disciples on what it means to imitate him, not just in the ethics of their daily conduct, in their words and deeds, but in what they will likely experience as a result of following him – rejection, shame, suffering, and possibly even death. The lesson takes an ominous tone, almost as if he is warning them of the rigors and deprivations of a life following in his way. Before we even arrive at the crucifixion, Jesus here for the first time mentions the cross. It would seem the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.
Jesus here is talking about the kinds of rejection and strife, even from family members, that disciples might encounter. But, he is also speaking of the kind of commitment that a disciple must make. Because we want as many people to find Christianity palatable and welcoming as possible, we don’t often discuss in the church what the actual cost of discipleship is. Here Jesus is being frank – to follow him and to imitate him is to enter into a life shaped and defined by the cross – shaped by an instrument of state torture and state execution. Yet, the cost is not without benefit. Throughout this passage and many like it, the costs of following Jesus are buttressed with the promises of God’s unshakeable love and presence. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Before his tragic assassination in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken advocate for the poor and the oppressed in El Salvador, wrote of the assumed cost of discipleship and wondered if that cost were not well worth it.
He writes, “Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives—that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us—they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially—lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.”
Romero seems to assume, that the converse is also true, that, as Jesus promises, to love as he loves, to embrace not only ourselves and our selfish interests – to expand our circle of care to include not just our community, our tribe, our family, or our race – to love the children of Iraq as much as we love our own, to see a young four year old African American girl in the back of a squad car comforting her grieving mother, and to see only a daughter, our daughter – would be to gain our truest and fullest humanity, to be human as Christ was. This would be to gain our lives.
I have been challenged in my conversations with fellow Christians about the divisions of race in our country how little and how infrequently we identify as Christian in those conversations. When we speak of our fundamental identities, we will speak of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geography, even education, before we mention that we are, oh yes, followers of Jesus, the crucified and risen one. I am sure there is as much caution there as anything else. For better or worse, particularly Episcopalians are careful not to claim too much or assert too certainly on matters of faith. We embrace doubt as much as belief, to good end, so as to not alienate or exclude. But, I have wondered in our reluctance or inability to identify as Christian if there weren’t more at play. I have wondered what fears and realizations of the costs of discipleship keep us from committing fully and deeply to the identifier “follower of Jesus”. What do we fear?
The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wondered the same thing, wondering if it were not only the costs, but the attendant promises that were equally fearful. “Perhaps I am stronger than I think” he writes. “Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against myself, thus making myself weak. Making myself secure. Making myself guilty.
Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me. Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself than strong in God whom I cannot know.”
The world is divided, and we share in that division. Whether it be divided in our commitments or along lines of class and race and politics. And, in the midst of that division, it is not easy to hear this morning’s gospel of even further divisiveness. We will not easily or unthinkingly embrace a life that further alienates us from loved ones and a world already at odds with itself. But, we must choose. The greatest divide lies before us as a choice between selfishness and self preservation, and life. To do this, to pick up the cross and follow Jesus, might come with a terrible cost. We might lose friends and baffle family and find ourselves as strangers in a world that often chooses selfishness and death. But, to follow Jesus, to lose our life in favor of the life he holds out to us, will place us squarely in the world, a world bursting with the presence of God, a world waiting to be embraced and loved and ready to love in return.