I’t’s been a long break this summer from writing. I’ve been preaching without a net for that time, but I’m now back to written texts for sermons. This one is based on Matthew 16:21-28.
You may remember the photo from the Boston Marathon bombing of victim James Costello. He appears slightly hunched over, his jeans completely shredded exposing his legs and the damage they suffered. He pulled shrapnel from his stomach at the scene just moments before the picture was taken, and you can clearly see that he is reeling. In the days that followed, James needed skin grafts on much of his right arm and leg due to the burns there, and endured multiple surgeries.
This past week, James got married to Krista D’Agostino, a traveling nurse who came to the Spaulding Rehab Hospital at about the time James arrived. She spent six weeks there—overlapping with James— and they fell in love. James in an interview with the Today Show, said, “One thing that she hates that I always say is I’m actually glad I got blown up. I wish everyone else didn’t have to, but I don’t think I would have ever met her if I didn’t.” New photos of their wedding appeared online, a couple clearly in love, so filled with hope and joy.
If you Google James’ name, you can also find an interview he did about a month after the bombing. He had gotten a lot of calls and inquiries from friends to see if it was really him in the photo they saw everywhere, one of the iconic images of the blast. He wanted people to know he was all right and to remember the other people, the ones like his close friends who had been with him and lost a limb, and especially the ones who had perished. During this earlier interview James is clearly down. He speaks about learning to dribble a basketball again to improve his coordination, and how he looks forward to playing with his buddies who were with him at the finish line. “Maybe we’ll eventually be able to play,” he said. “But it’s never going to be the same.”
Despair is apparent. He’s at the bottom, and has seen much of the pain that life can throw his way. He’s a number of months from saying how glad he is that he had been significantly injured.
No one I know wants hardship in their life. If given the choice, we’d take the easier route, the more joyful experience and avoid the pain. All of us. 100% of the time. And yet we hear these words from Jesus, “If any want to be 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.”
Jesus’ saying is counterintuitive. Take the harder more painful path. Pick up the cross beam and follow the way that leads to crucifixion, and know that you’ll be mocked and treated harshly. Even though it’ll feel like life is slipping out of your hands, that’s not really life after all. What you’ll experience on the other side is much deeper and richer. You’ll see that the life of this world—riches and power and all that—is nothing in comparison to the life you’ll find deep in your soul.
This summer I’ve been rereading Richard Rohr’s fabulous book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr, a Franciscan author, retreat leader and spiritual guide, enumerates with great detail this concept of Jesus: that our lives can only be found if we lose them. We cannot force the pain or the experience that causes us to hit bottom, but through the experience we can be shown and live into God’s tremendous grace. He says of our passage this morning, “[These words of Jesus] are pretty strong, almost brutal, by contemporary standards; but they make very clear that there is a necessary suffering that cannot be avoided, which Jesus calls ‘losing our very life’ or losing what I and others call the ‘false self.’ Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real. “How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?’ is the lasting question.
What I cannot get away from in this biblical text is this simple truth: to obtain life we must travel through the way of the cross. I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could stand before you and promise something entirely different, but then I wouldn’t be a true minister of the gospel. It’s only when we lose our lives that we find them.
In John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful come upon the River of Death in their journey, and they see that there is no bridge over it. They must enter in, though Christian is afraid. As he sets out into the water, he begins to sink. Hopeful says to him, “Be of good cheer, my brother! I feel the bottom, and it is good.” He strikes bottom and it is good; it’s firm. There’s only so far down he must go before he touches that which can hold him, and then he is able to ford across death to the other side.
Often when I hear about hardships from parishioners and friends I want to take the pain away from them. I want to help them pass quickly through their troubles. Louise Penny writes my favorite mystery series. One of the characters in her books is a grumpy wizened crusty old poet named Ruth. During the egg hunt one Easter in the series Ruth discovers two duck eggs that have been handled. Ruth watches closely and finds that the mother duck leaves the eggs and so Ruth, seemingly beyond her rough exterior, takes the eggs home to hatch them. One of the ducklings, Rosa, is able to hatch quite easily and is soon waddling around. The other, a duck she names Flora, has difficulty breaking free, so Ruth helps her out. Yet Ruth discovers that she shouldn’t have done this. That in the struggle Flora’s strength would increase, her capacity to breath grow stronger. Instead, since Ruth pulled back the shell and aided her, Flora eventually became too frail to survive.
My intentions as a priest are sometimes misguided, I suspect. Not to say I should turn my back on people when they face times of crisis, but rather to stand near them as they seek to find their way. To pray with them and for them, and then to allow them the chance to wrestle with their life, to lose what they hold so close and dear, and to remind them of Jesus’ own suffering. He shares with us in the suffering; not even he was exempt from it. But the death we experience in our lives—the breaking down of the finally crafted exterior—can only lead to resurrection, to new life toward a truer and deeper faith.
The only way to lasting life is through the cross. If you want to really follow Jesus, you must lose your life. Period. Point finale. There is no way around this deep truth.
Which is why Jesus is so very harsh with Peter. Peter sees Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God–remember, he got the answer right just last week!—yet his understanding was probably that Jesus would come in and out gun the Romans. That he would lead a revolution of power and set up a new kingdom and that maybe Peter himself might get one of the coveted spots of prestige. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, and face great suffering and die.
“No, Jesus! It can’t be! Never will this happen to you!” Peter wanted to pull Jesus out from the egg. He wanted to make it all better. To not have Jesus experience distress. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus retorts. “You don’t see yet, Peter. It’s not about power or image or anything else. It’s about sacrificial living, giving of yourself for others. The only way to experience life is to lose everything.”
If we truly want to follow the Son of the Living God, then it’ll take some sacrifice. It may mean giving more of our money away to others, or giving up the job title to work with a non-profit. It will mean letting go of our carefully constructed identity to discover the truer identity given to us by God. It will mean facing hardship and pain, I am sorry to say, but through those things we’ll discover a much richer life filled with Christ’s love. My hope is that we recognize Jesus traveling with us during these dark times. That we see a glimmer of hope. And that we become truly renewed and saved through those times that take our lives from us, emerging from the ashes renewed and filled with Christ’s resurrection grace. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 2011). Pg. 85.
 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009) Pg. 148.