SACRIFICAL LOVE, CAN YOU IMAGINE IT?
Can you imagine it? I’m sure Peter was struggling with imaging what just took place. It was only a short while when he was confessing Jesus as the Messiah, and now in his concern, he takes Jesus aside to have a chat with him. First he was a cornerstone, given the keys to the Kingdom, and now Jesus is calling him a stumbling block. Surely he doesn’t really mean that he’s going to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be killed! And what’s this stuff about being raised from the dead? Dead is dead, or is it? Can you imagine it? But Peter can’t, and perhaps we struggle with that as well, even when we know the rest of the story. These followers are certainly aware of the violence and oppression, the occupation and taxation that the Romans have exerted over them. They certainly are aware that Herod and others have killed everyone from infants to peasants for fear of someone rising up and becoming more powerful. Force and violence appear to be key to who is holding the power. They can’t imagine anything different from retribution, violence and hate. Sound familiar? We can well imagine as it sounds like all too familiar tones of our day and our world as well. And perhaps we’re not even surprised that Jesus was killed, that he did suffer beatings and torture, crucified and humiliated on the cross, innocent of the drummed-up charges by the priests and scribes, violence and hatred trumping love and caring for the least, for the marginalized.
I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with an image for this. I thought about dancing and how one partner might be trying to lead steps for a two-step and the other might be trying to waltz. How awkward and out of step they are with each other. What one imagines about dancers is that one will lead and the other will follow, and they will be dancing the same foot patterns, dancing to the same rhythms, and there will be a one-ness about their dance. You can imagine this, even if you’re not a dancer.
I then tried to think about it from a sports aspect, baseball – how you have a game plan to study those who are in the line up to bat, what the pitcher needs to know about each player coming to the plate. Those out on the field also know something about each hitter, whether they tend to go long or are especially good at placing the ball through the gaps to get on base. There’s also something that hitters know that will lead to advancing base runners, and that’s a sacrifice ball – they are out for the sake of advancing the runner. It’s a team sport and getting more runners to cross the plate than the other team is the object for winning the game. Sounds simple, and perhaps you can imagine that.
I’m thinking that what we have difficulty with imaging is that Jesus didn’t come to violently take control of people or the world. He came to bring peace, love, and freedom, and he will make the sacrifice so that we might have these. Sometimes we might not even be aware of what controls us or keeps us tied up – not free. We have a culture that encourages us to seek a little more – more wealth, more status, more security, more stuff. Sometimes we have to come full circle in our life’s journey to realize that more is rarely life-giving just for the sake of having more. I think what we are offered in this text, and also from the reading from Romans is something that is more life-giving. “Let love be genuine,” Paul says. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” He goes on to say “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another.”
It would seem that there are many stumbling blocks that keep us from extending hospitality to strangers, contributing to the needs of others, loving others with mutual affection. I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks is fear. Fear grabs us and we’re afraid that the stranger will take something from us, will want more than we are able to give, will want us to make sacrifices that we’re not ready to commit to. While the Midtown Ethnic Festival was a great day to experience the diversity of our community, it’s a one-day festival. It’s pretty easy to go back to doing what we’ve always done without thinking about how all of this diversity is who we are every day. I continue to marvel at the students, faculty and staff at Kishwaukee School – truly a little united nation of cultures and ethnicities that come together every school day and not only make an effort to get along; they make the sacrifices necessary to show mutual love and understanding of one another. They respect the differences as well as learn to embrace the ways they are alike. How is it that we expect less of ourselves as adults than we do of these young children? Can’t we imagine what mutual love, freedom, respect, and make the sacrifices necessary for that to happen? Perhaps it is too hard to imagine!
I think that is one of the reasons the Church continues to exist. We are the training ground for that kind of love. We pass that on to the next generations in our homes, in our schools, in Sunday School and activities that we participate in as the body of Christ – the oneness that Jesus calls us to be about. We model that in our worship – coming together to first confess our sins and hear God’s words of absolution for us – a clean slate. We offer prayers for one another; we share the peace – not just because it’s a nice thing to do and a chance for a little hospitality to guests who might show up for worship. We share the peace because we have been reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died that we can be a forgiven people. We model that as we come hungry to be fed with the sacrifice of Jesus – his body, his blood, and the promise of life eternal. We have a reason for coming together and being sent out – that there’s a mission God has called us to be about, and it will require some sacrifice on our part. We are asked to give – because we’ve first been given. Our God is a God of abundance and we aren’t given left-overs. God gives us the best. The school supplies we bring so that the children have what they need for their learning are a love offering that we can make. The prayer shawls we bless and give are our prayers wrapping the one needing to sense God’s closeness and healing powers. It’s almost time to send off what we have been gathering for Lutheran World Relief, and each of those school kits, baby and personal kits are life-giving gifts to others we may never meet – hospitality and contributing to the needs of others. Lutheran Disaster Relief is already in Texas and Louisiana, assessing the needs and bringing aid to those who are suffering from the ravages of the hurricane and flooding. 100% of our giving to LDR goes directly to those who need it most and none is used for administrative costs. Our benevolence that we give, first here, then what we send to the Synod, and then what is sent on to Church-wide makes these kinds of services available to those with such great need. I want you to imagine that – because that’s the kind of Church we are.
Peter may well have been reeling from what he encountered as he was only trying to protect Jesus from the violence and hatred that Jesus knew was to come. We too may well be reeling from the violence and hatred that we hear and experience daily. But God has not left us orphaned or abandoned in the midst of all of this. We are a gifted people. God gave us his son – the very best gift – and made the sacrifice so that we might know love, forgiveness, freedom, and have the opportunity and responsibility to give back – to realize that we have new life in Jesus Christ. All things are made new through this sacrifice of love. And because we are a blessed and gifted people, we can offer that to others who need life-giving love and hope in the midst of violence, war, discrimination and hatred, and power that takes life away from those who already have so little. We can multiply the impact of God’s gift by the way we live out the love we have from God. We can help others to imagine that they are loved and whole in our broken world. There is good news! We know that good news! I hope you can imagine it and help others imagine it as well. Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order to introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead and that is good news. We can see it, we can taste it, and we can believe it that the life-giving promises of the Messiah – Jesus Christ – came not to give us what we want but what we need. The circle of life leads us from despair to love and hope. We are reflections of that love and hope. Imagine that! Thanks be to God. Amen
Jeremiah 15: 15-21
Psalm 26: 1-8
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28