“In St. Petersburg, Russia there was a Lutheran church that was made out of wood—St. Mary’s church. During the siege of St. Petersburg
during the Second World War, in the midst of the winter, the eyes of desperate people turned to that church and its wood—enough to provide fire for thousands of people so they would not die because of cold. The church leaders allowed it: the church was dismantled, bit by bit, for neighbors to use its wood and light small fires to keep them alive. What a symbol and what a powerful story! It speaks to what it means to be a servant church, giving up itself for the sake of the life of the people. At the end of the siege nothing was left from that church—a small plaque remains today where it stood once. But thousands of people managed to survive because of that church that gave itself away.” I told this story at council this week, as part of our devotions, after first hearing it from Bishop Susan Johnson this summer at National Convention.
This week I also read about another group of faith-related structures, but this is a very different story. In Mina, Saudi Arabia, there are 100,000 air conditioned tents, organized into a massive neighborhood of pristine white roofs. The tents are grouped into communities that include washrooms and kitchens and learning areas. They exist to accept the annual influx of pilgrims coming to Mecca. And they have recently become a point of criticism. After all, we all know that just outside Saudi borders, millions of refugees are desperately trying to flee poverty, hunger and war, and yet these tents sit empty. Saudi Arabia, with all its wealth, has taken not a single refugee. Because they need to save those tents, they say.
We would like to think we’d be the first faith community, the one willing to strip our own walls to give to the poor. But are we? What’s more are we people who do that in our daily lives – giving of our material selves, and convenience for the good of those in need?
Our first lesson, proverbs, relates to the frustration of Wisdom, who standing at the gates of a city, has grown frustrated by the citizens inside who “love being simple,” who prefer to scoff at others, who reject knowledge.
First of all, it’s worth noting, that we are being called, both in this reading and throughout the gospel, to seek knowledge, to learn facts, to study so that we might discern what is true. Sometimes, in our metaphor as sheep being led by the shepherd, we put too much emphasis on being sheep. In truth, the focus of that metaphor is on the care and concern shown to us by Jesus. We are called – as Wisdom insists – to love knowledge so that we might, in turn be shepherds. Faith without works, we learned last week, is empty. Faith without knowledge, we learn this week, is blind.
What is wisdom? Wisdom is the acceptance that we are not perfect—the awareness that time races on—the understanding that material wealth does not, at the end of the day, make one rich. We might nod at all these phrases, but then forget them in the next second. For we know that human lives should always be worth more than a building, that those with means should always provide for those with little. But this is a hard wisdom to practice. We get the math wrong all the time. We are sentimental about our churches. We don’t like to share what we were saving for someone else. We like it when people admire what we own, and we constantly fight against the envy we feel for those who have more.
And yet, the gospel is clear. Jesus says: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
What is Jesus really saying there? That we give up everything, for the gospel. Not exactly. This message more about our agenda, our goals, and our intentions: how will we share our advantages for the work of God? Can we become wise shepherds who multiple their time and talents for the benefit of the world?
Why me? You might be thinking. Why us? There are people with more money who give nothing. There are churches with more endowments who sit on it like a pot of gold. There are countries that are not doing their part to solve a humanitarian crisis in their own backyard. Why us?
To that, I imagine Jesus would answer: Who else? Our individual and collective choices to lose ourselves for the gospel have nothing to do with what our neighbor does. We are not called to be simple sheep waiting for someone else to take the lead; we are to be the wise shepherds walking with Jesus. Too often we wait things out, to see how the situation will fall, assess the pros and cons. There is risk in going first – but that is the risk that Jesus is talking about. We all gain our lives when we lose it.
Everyday, we have chances to lose a piece of ourselves for the sake of the gospel. We lose pride when we are the first to forgive in a family dispute when our brother shames us, or our mother-in-law insults us. We lose selfishness when we inconvenience ourselves for the sake of others. We lose despair when we act to right a wrong, even if it means putting a little money toward a cause for people whose pain we can’t understand.
Those are some of the things we lose when we follow the gospel. But walking that path requires wisdom, and wisdom requires learning about the world. We must be informed, we must hear out different opinions. Those who choose the simplest path, who live to scoff at others without seeing the complexity of life, are warned of their fate, in our first lesson. They shall, wisdom says, “eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.”
What a symbol the church has been, and what a powerful story it has told when it has been a servant church, giving up itself for the sake of the life of the people. What a gift life has been for individuals when they have given their lives for the sake of others. Amen.