Sermons That Work

Loving Your Life, Proper 17 (A) – 2023

September 03, 2023

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

If one is to believe that great treasury of modern wisdom, “The Lion King,” life is a circle that eventually unwinds. Death is nothing more than the end of the story of life. Death is not something to mourn, but something to accept, even to celebrate and so… Hakuna Matata! And Disney isn’t alone in bringing us philosophical consolations for our mortality. Nearly every recorded human philosophical tradition has something poetically noble to say about the acceptance of death, and yet, when the inflight turbulence gets extreme, or the test result says “cancer,” all of this noble philosophy tends to fly out the window, and we cling to life with all we’ve got. If death really is just a natural part of life, you would think that millions of years of hominid evolution would have been enough time for us to get acclimated to the fact, but thus far, we remain horrified by death.

The reason for this is not that we are in denial, or that we just have a bit more philosophizing to do; instead, it’s that “The Lion King” is dead wrong: death is not natural. Death is not an integral part of life, it’s not the beautiful close of the story: we fly from death, we rage against it because death was never meant to be.

In the Creation story, Adam and Eve fall through turning away from God. The problem for them is that God is the source of light, truth, beauty, justice, life, and all that is good. In turning away from God, we don’t turn toward something else but to… nothingness, emptiness, non-existence, to death.

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they turned away from being and toward non-being, and thereby ushered death into the world. Death is not part of God’s creation, but its opposite: Death is, as Paul says in First Corinthians, the final enemy of God to be conquered by Christ.

This is why in today’s Gospel, when Jesus says that he is to be crucified and die, Peter exclaims, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” How can the Son of God, the way, the truth, the life himself, be defeated by death? Peter sees death as the ultimate end for all of us, as the tragic unwinding of the circle of life, and he believes that Jesus is saying that he, too, will eventually be defeated by it.

But Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter imagines that death will be the end of Christ, because he does not realize that, in the Resurrection, Christ will be the end of death.  

When we approach life from a human perspective, we have only two choices; on the one hand is carpe diem, YOLO. Amass all the goods, all the experiences, all the happiness here and now, for that’s all that you’re going to get. While on the other hand is Puritanism. Remain unsullied by the joys of this life, and in the world to come you will receive infinite servings of froyo in your celestial Lamborghini. Take your happiness now or defer your happiness later; in either case, it’s all about me, me, me.

But then, there is the divine perspective: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

To take the divine perspective is neither to eke every last drop of happiness from the world nor to retreat in horror from the good things of this life so that you can have them after you’re dead. Instead, it is to give up on living for yourself entirely.

To live for ourselves is to imagine that we can buy joy for ourselves. We imagine that a perfect car, a perfect house, or a perfect vacation will transmute normal life into total perfection. To live for ourselves is to imagine that we can seduce or marry joy, that we would be perfectly content if only the right partner were to come along. To live for ourselves is to imagine that we can earn joy by working hard enough, becoming successful enough, popular enough, famous enough, but all of these are just illusions and dead ends. These are the carrots that life keeps dangling before us, which never provide true fulfillment, and the one who loves them, who loves her or his life, loses it in chasing after wind.

Counterintuitively, the one who takes up the cross of self-denial, who refuses to believe that revenge brings about closure, who rejects the idea that the one who dies with the most toys wins, the one who gives up on her or his life altogether… actually finds true life.

The opposite of loving your life is not hating it, the opposite of loving your life, is loving others. But we have so many definitions of love, that many-splendored thing, so how do we know if we are really taking up our crosses? Paul helpfully gives us a diagnostic test in today’s reading from Romans.

Paul asks, “How well do you honor others? Do you treat all with respect and kindness? In-person? In what you say about them behind their backs? In your thoughts? What about those people who really get on your nerves? Do you really honor them as living icons of God?

“How are you persevering in prayer? Do you make time each day to know and feel the love of God? To rejoice in God’s presence? Or do you have more important things to do?

“How much of your wealth do you use in the service of others? Your family, your friends, strangers, people on the other side of the globe? What percentage of your resources goes to serving them versus yourself?

“When someone mocks you, is rude to you, betrays you, or hurts you, how do you respond? An icy stare of condescension? A witty retort? Unmerciful vengeance? Do you fantasize about showing them that they’ve messed with the wrong person? Or do you bless them, feed them, love them as beloved children of our Heavenly Father?”

Do you give away your life, or are you falling down on the job of being a Christian? Failing to carry your cross? Clinging to life rather than freely giving it in the service of Christ? If so… welcome to the club.

But all is not lost, for in spite of all appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ way is actually easy, and his burden is light. Once you begin to lay down your life, once you begin to turn your back on all the illusions of greed, lust, anger, and selfishness, you will genuinely begin to find rest for your souls.

This week, what are one or two ways that you can turn away from yourself and toward others? Who can you serve, honor, or feed? The Lord Jesus Christ is calling you to take up your cross and follow him. Will you be his disciple?

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Christopher Sikkema


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