Monday, March 9, 2009

Losing Your Life - A Sermon

There’s a doctor named Sanjay Gupta who you can see on TV regularly.  He is the medical expert for CNN.  Recently, he did a special called “Saving Your Life.”  On the local public radio station, there’s a regular medical show called, “How To Save Your Life.”

These are good doctors giving out good advice to people who want to live healthier lives.  Nothing wrong with that.  If that’s as far as it goes.

We just want to approach such shows or any of the countless books, DVDs, shows, or workshops on staying healthy with a grain of salt.  Because no matter how healthy we keep ourselves, we WILL one day die.  And no matter how healthy we are on that fateful day, when we get to it, we will know that our purpose in life was not merely to die looking good but something more, something deeper.

I mention these shows about saving your life because of their titles which bring to mind our eternal struggle to somehow beat death.  And by death, we usually mean physical death.  It was the same struggle in Jesus’ day, and he faced it head on, much to the discomfort of his disciples.

On a day when he asks them to dig a little deeper into the purpose of his ministry, into his very being, Peter starts to catch a glimmer.  “You are the Christ,” he says, but has no idea what it means.  When Jesus tells him this will mean suffering and death, Peter will have none of it.  After all, if you’re perfect, if you’re on the side of God, how can you possibly have to deal with death?

Isn’t that what we still think?  Don’t we still see death as a tragedy, especially if it comes unexpectedly or to someone who is young?  Don’t we secretly think of death as all too final?  I mean, we’re still arguing about the death penalty because we see it as the “ultimate punishment.”  When a soldier or a cop or a firefighter dies in the line of duty, don’t we say they made the ultimate sacrifice?

All I’m saying is that death goes against our instincts, and we try to avoid it at all costs.  Which makes Jesus’ statement to his disciples troubling.  Even more so, however, when he says to them, “Oh, not only am I going to die, but if you want to remain my followers, YOU are going to have your own crosses -- quite literally.”

The disciples were given notice -- they were going to have to face death head on.  Not only face it but -- as they learned -- embrace it.  We have these bodies for a reason, Jesus says, and we are called to make use of them while we inhabit them.  But we fall into sin when we think taking care of them IS our purpose.  When we become proud of our bodies and -- by extension -- all the things we acquire which shout out to the world “Health, Well-Being, Strong, Wealthy!” then we start to lose the real life that we are meant to live.

Case study:  Abram.  Here is a guy who gave up a lot to follow God.  He left his father’s house and his adopted home to purse a dream and a promise.  The promise was that he would have children.  Well, that promise was fulfilled for Abram when his son Ishmael was born.  Now Abram was wealthy and had everything.

Until one day God comes knocking again and gives him two very strange commands.  First change your name.  What?  Why?  To understand, it helps to remember the power of names.  They predict and proclaim a person’s future.  Abram meant “Exalted Father.”  Kind of catchy.  Now he was to get rid of that.  In fact, Abram was feeling rather exalted.  But God changed it to AbraHAM -- father of a multitude.  It’s a reminder that he is not here to be exalted but to be a blessing to all nations, as God commanded when they first made their covenant back in Haran.

Second, God commanded him to be circumcised and to circumcise all the men in his household.  Now that’s a conversation I would have loved to hear:  “Guys, I just had a talk with God, and this is what he wants us to do….”  Why make this permanent mark on their bodies?

Perhaps because now that he had a son -- the one thing he lacked before -- he was getting too full of himself.  Perhaps he thought he had done this himself or that life was complete.  Circumcision attacks the very pride of a man back then.  Abram had to be marked for life in exactly the area where he was feeling the most pride.

God says, “This is not what you are here for, and though you will have other children as promised, remember that the purpose of your life is neither to stay alive, nor to make little copies of yourself for when you are gone.  It is and always was to walk with me and to be a blessing to all the world, not yourself.”

Maybe we get a hint of that these days.  Life is full of uncertainty.  Jobs for one, are never certain.  Our futures are clouded.  Health care is becoming ever more expensive even as it becomes harder to insure.  We wonder, when will it all stop so we can just go back to living our lives? 

Jesus says, maybe never.  Maybe living our lives isn’t the point.  Just to let you know, I’m intensely uncomfortable with this.  I feel like the disciples, after Jesus said, “We’re headed toward death, not glory in this world.”

I’m not sure any of us can fully embrace the idea that the homes we worked for, the jobs that defined us, the retirement plans we had made are NOT the point of life -- but there it is.  Perhaps this season of Lent -- and this season of uncertainty called economic crisis, are here to remind us that we are on this earth for something more, something deeper.

So, I’ll simply ask you to consider what that something more is in your life.  Take these next few short weeks and assume you’re not here merely to acquire stuff and look good when you die.  Ask yourself, “What is my purpose?”  Or better yet, ask God.  Amen.