This morning’s gospel asks us all one of the most fundamental questions of our faith: how much of our lives are we willing to lose for the things we believe in? Jesus offers it to us as a prescription: those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. But it is really a question laid out before us: if you say you believe in me, Jesus says, how much of your life will you change to make that mean something? How much of your earthly life, your material life, will you sacrifice to find the divine? How much of your life are you prepared to lose to create something better?
The gospel reminded me of a podcast I listened to this summer, an interview with U.S. Congressman John Lewis, before he died this summer at the age of 80. John Lewis was the son of a sharecropper who grew up to be a prominent civil rights activist, a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr. To challenge segregation, he participated in counter sit-ins, and joined the Freedom Riders on buses, and on a Sunday in 1965, he helped lead a march for voting rights across on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On that bridge he was badly beaten in the head by Alabama State Troopers, so brutally he thought he would die. John Lewis was a man prepared to lose his life for what he believed was right.
He was also a man of deep and abiding faith, and that is the focus of his interview. He challenges the listener to see love as the powerful response to injustice, not anger and retribution. He speaks of looking past the actions of the man who beat him to understand what happened along the way, what trauma might have been suffered to lead him on that path. Love, he argues, is not the weak way – the loser’s plight. It is the most powerful posture a person can take. Indeed, this is the losing that Jesus is imploring us to do.
We live in a world right now that says the opposite – or one which, at least, offers, two versions of ways to live. There is one version that is driven by fear – fear of the stranger, fear of the outsider, fear of the future. That one is loud, it is energetic, and it feels safe. This is the version that guards the gates and builds higher walls. There is less risk because we are protecting the status quo. The second version is quieter, gentler, and yet riskier. It opens gates and tears down walls, but that is so much harder. An open gate is unpredictable. Who will pass through? What will happen then? Will life change too much?
Yet we know clearly which way Jesus wants us to go; the gospel is one big metaphor for Jesus’s standing at our side, turning us in one direction, and saying: see there, this is the way. We resist for all kinds of very human reasons, but for one most of all: we are afraid. We are afraid of losing.
Our second lesson spells it out for us. Rejoice in Hope. Bless those who persecute you. Live in Harmony. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. Overcome evil with good.
These words feel especially important right now, when we are being asked to trade our individual freedom – that is, lose a part of our lives – to save others as much as ourselves. This second lesson speaks directly to our current circumstances, when we need to have hope that our sacrifice is meaningful, when we need to avoid expending our finite energy pointing fingers, when we need most of all to live in collective harmony. In this pandemic, we all face a very clear version of the prescription from Jesus: only by losing some things can we save everything.
But that how the gospel works: You trade one thing – in the case of COVID-19, some individual freedom – and you gain another – a safer society. You stand on a bridge and face violence with passive resistance, and you gain a world where disputes are handled peacefully. You lose, and yet you are saved.
Now that doesn’t always – or even often – happen in the next minute, the next day, or even the next decade. (Although sometimes it can: few things defuse tension better than a person responding calmly and from a place of love.) In John Lewis’s case, he had to wait a long while, and indeed, in the summer he died, he saw his country slip backwards and forwards all at once.
But he also shared a story, one that would never have been possible if he had responded that day in Alabama with hate and vengeance. A few years after he was elected to Congress, at the Civil Rights Memorial dedication, he was approached by a man named Floyd Mann. In 1965, Floyd Mann was a public safety director for the Alabama State Troopers. On the bridge, he had held his gun in the air, and tried to stop the beatings from becoming fatal. “Congressman Lewis, do you remember me?” he asked. And Mr. Lewis recalled his answer, “Mr. Mann, how could I forget you? You saved my life. And I cried, and he cried.” This summer, after John Lewis died, we watched Alabama State Troopers carry his coffin as an honour guard. And so, out of justifiable loss and righteous risk, so much is saved.
Now, John Lewis had big goals, some of which he saw accomplished and some he didn’t. But he achieved them both by wide community action and by his individual approach to people. Our role as a church is the same – we can act from a place of love as a community and from a place of love as individuals. Both are necessary; both are powerful.
To live this way, John Lewis explained, he leaned on his Christian faith, which was shored up by optimism. The very rejoicing in hope that our second lesson describes. For him, it was an ability to visualize that what “you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.”
A world where love is already perfect; now that is a powerful vision, a motivating, centering vision. It is the vision of the gospel. Lose your life, Jesus tells us, and you will find it. Where others might sow division, choose to see creativity. Where some predict conflict, assume peaceful resolution. Where many see a person as their enemy, choose to embrace them as a friend. This is how we win in the only way that matters.
Based on Matthew 16:21-28, Romans 12:9-21, and John Lewis—Love in Action: https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action/