Are there any Abrahams, or aged fathers, here? Anybody here feel dead? In all seriousness, what is dead, or as good as dead, in your life? If I look at life in the communities around us, I’d nominate our civil discourse. The political rhetoric we’re hearing is not exactly life-giving – it’s mostly about dealing death to the opponent.
What else is dead? Some think the church is dead or dying – and they think it’s because it’s not holy enough or growing fast enough; it’s not as influential as it used to be, or is remembered to be. I’ve heard quite a bit of lament about that kind of death and dying in the last few weeks.
The church in Japan laments its small numbers – Christians are less than 1% of the population, and the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church in Japan) is the third church body in terms of membership. Taiwan laments its slow growth – it began at the instigation of American military members in 1954 and today counts 13 congregations and about 3000 members. Both nations have declining birth rates and populations that are shrinking if you don’t count immigration. The churches are much like Abraham, waiting to find out who their heirs are going to be. Hong Kong’s Anglican church laments its struggles with government and taxes – and its loss of status as the “state church” under the British. Almost every part of the church has some lament about shrinking finances or human resources.
We hear similar laments here – where are all the children? Where will the next generation of church members and leaders come from? How come we can’t simply pronounce the gospel and expect the whole society to fall into line? How can we keep the doors open or pay the priest?
If we’re willing to look inward – and at the end of a retreat that should be a bit easier – most of us have dead zones, not unlike the one out there in the Gulf. Where has the oxygen and life been sucked out by some kind of decay or decomposition? Maybe it’s an important relationship that needs healing but feels pretty hopeless, a dying marriage, or a career that’s come to a dead end.
Well, my friends – it has been ever thus: life is hard, and then we die. But followers of Jesus can choose what they will die to and die for. We can choose how to engage the unbidden and varied dyings of this mortal life. Dying, particularly dying to self, can be not only productive, but it is often the only possible life-giving response.
Abraham chose to let go of his fear and hopelessness, and simply stay in touch with God’s outrageous promise. He died to the world’s assumptions about his age and possibilities. Paul’s conversion was about dying to his certainty about how he understood faithfulness.
Jesus chose a road that was likely to lead to imprisonment, torture, and a lingering execution. He chose that road in the service of greater life – in a challenge to political and religious leaders who had pretty deadly assumptions about what life and faithfulness were really about. Jesus chose the road that leads to more abundant life for the whole world. And his disciples didn’t want to hear that.
That’s what Peter’s rebuke is about: ‘Don’t tell us life is going to be hard. Don’t tell us you’re leaving. Don’t talk to us about dying. We just want to bask in your glory when you lead this great army into Jerusalem, and take over.’ Their attitude had more in common with Donald Trump’s apprentices, as though they were waiting to become CEO of the latest hot venture capital firm – or some version of King of the Mountain.
Dying to self is the road to life – for most of us, most of the time. It doesn’t mean to hate yourself, but it does mean love your neighbor as yourself, rather than less than yourself. For most guys in this culture, at least those who don’t live in a desperately marginalized social location, that’s one of the biggest challenges.
Two absolutely central things are going on here. We find life, or save our lives, by giving them away – and in the process we participate in our own salvation or healing, as well as that of the whole world. Is it easy to keep choosing the life-giving and life-saving way? No, but it gets easier with practice and when we do it in community.
The discipline of Lent, and of all Christian living, is about helping to shape habits for that way of living. It’s not that different from athletic training, particularly for team sports. You learn to endure running laps, or doing multiple reps of strength exercises, or making weight as a wrestler, both to develop your own capacity and to contribute to the success of the team. Christian training is also a team activity – only it includes all of creation, not just the guys on our side. That may be the biggest sticking point – beginning to see every other human being as part of the team, not to mention the other parts of creation.
We live in a culture that celebrates individual success, forgetting or ignoring the reality that none of us gets to where we are, or want to be, all on our own. Yet the real success of teams depends on the willingness of individuals to set aside their pursuit of personal glory on behalf of the team. Christian spring training, which is what Lent really is, is meant to exercise our ability to do just that. Losing your life, taking up your cross, and following Jesus are about dedicating your gifts to his work – nothing less than saving or healing the world. Remember his mission statement in Luke? “I have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the lord’s favor”? That’s not just global work, it’s cosmic work, and it needs the gifts of every single one of us.
What happens when we die to self, or lose our lives? Many of you have experienced what it’s like to help people rebuild their lives on this coast following Katrina. Others know what it’s like to mentor a child who doesn’t have enough healthy adult role models in his life.
Sometimes whole groups of people choose a way of dying. The church in New Zealand is going to tear down its cathedral in ChristChurch. After the earthquakes of the last year there isn’t much left to save – but they are choosing to take it down, and preserve the significant parts for some future rebuilding. They’re not just talking about pieces of the building. It’s been a very painful process, as that cathedral served the people in remarkable ways in the midst of that city – low-income school children, the hungry and homeless, and the wider community. They are dying to what has been, and they are in the process of discovering a new route to giving themselves away.
I saw a remarkable example in Taiwan a few days ago – in a tiny congregation that has moved into the two lower floors of a small apartment building. The congregation uses the ground floor for office and meeting space, and on Sunday, for worship. The basement is home to an after school program for children who would otherwise be on the street or home alone. They get help with homework, food, and a community to love and mentor them. This impoverished part of the city is beset by unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, and a lot of children are being raised by single or distracted parents or elderly grandparents. St. Stephen’s is making a remarkable difference, one child at a time, giving itself away and finding abundant life in the process.
What kind of dying do you choose? What gets in the way? Who else is on your team?
Lent is about dying to self, in order to find more life. It’s a time to get on the road and practice. Have a good journey – we all know what’s coming.
 Luke 4:18-19