Walker Percy, the author, faced his own death and found it hilarious to be alive. While not many of us are ex-suicides, we can identify with Percy. He writes:
"The ex-suicide leaves for work at eight o'clock on an ordinary morning. He opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. He goes to work because he doesn't have to."
All of us have nothing to lose by being alive and the world to gain. Any one of us might not have been here to begin with; think of all the sperm that didn't get to the egg the day you were conceived. Any one of us might have died before now, by disease or accident, no matter how young or old we are. Any one of us might have decided to end our lives at any number of painful junctures. But no. Here we are. Now, what are we going to make of this life we have nothing to lose by living?
This is an appropriate kind of questions to ask ourselves during Lent. As we are bid to give a tenth of each year's income for God's Work, we are likewise bid to observe the forty days of Lent, roughly a tenth of each year's days, in self-reflection. Jesus himself went into the desert for forty days to mull over who he was and where his path was leading.
Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite writers, in Listening to Your Life, asks a series of questions designed to help us think about where we have been and where we are going. I have mulled these questions over, and I pass them on to you, hoping that one or more will spur your thinking.
When you look at your face in the mirror,
what do you see in it that you most like and
what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be,
in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
If this were the last day of your life,
what would you do with it?
Frederick Buechner goes on to say:
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business, all in all, but if sack cloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end."
These questions have been so helpful to me that I wish I could repeat them and give you time right during this show to mull them over. To hear myself try to answer these questions has taught me a thing or two about where I've been and where I want to go, what I've been and what I feel called to become. For example, when I mulled over what I would most like to undo, I concluded it was those things that I did out of fear, fear that I wasn't good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, you name it. I tried to compensate for my perceived failings by doing things I would later regret, and still regret. On the other hand, the things I've done that give me the most pleasure to remember are things I did to make life better, happier, easier for someone else, odd things, little things, like being able to help my mother fix her hair, because I was better with my hands than she was. When I mulled over how to spend my last hours, I concluded that I would like to give ~ give thanks to the people who are dear to me and to God for the gift of being alive. When I mulled over whether I would give my life for a person or cause, I began to consider what I really care about: there is no lip service when you picture your life on the line.
Over and over again, these questions, approaching the subject of my life from all different angles, reveal to me the practical truth that it is by losing my life that I find it, by giving that I receive. It is good for me to move away from being self-centered, which is destructive, and move towards loving others as Jesus did. There it is. If you mull over these questions, I suspect you may come to similar conclusions.
Now, many times in our lives, giving of ourselves is easy. We are like children at Christmas who can't wait for Mom or Dad to open our present: "Open mine next. You'll never guess what I got you." Sometimes the joy of giving is pure pleasure.
Other times, of course, giving of ourselves is anything but easy. Yet, we are called by God to give, even when it is a sacrifice: when it is at great personal cost or almost beyond our means.
If we look at the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, we get a whiff of how devastating sacrifice can be. We meet Abraham, who has been told by God to sacrifice Isaac, "your only son, the one you and Sarah have waited all you lives for, the one you love with your whole heart, the one who is the linchpin for the hopes of your people, this son you shall take to a distant mountain and sacrifice to me." We picture Abraham struggling and walking side by side with the son he adores, wanting to turn back. Yet he doesn't turn back; he voluntarily proceeds to Moriah, filled with fear and dread. Abraham goes through the unthinkable steps of getting his son ready for the sacrifice, not because of any benefit to himself ~ his loss will be too great; but because he trusts God and believes that the God who has blessed him desires this sacrifice. For this reason, he offers up what is more dear to him than life itself. At the last minute, of course, he sees the ram, who may have been standing there since the beginning of time, and he knows that God does not desire the sacrifice of his child but the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac. He then calls the place: "The Lord shall provide." Because of his trust in God and his willingness to sacrifice even his son, Abraham is seen as the Father of Faith not only by Jews and Christians but Muslims as well.
From this story, we learn, among other things, that sacrifice is costly, that it is voluntary, that it is done with the hope that good will result, and that somehow or other, God works through our sacrifices to transform us.
We learn some of the same things from Jesus. In the lesson appointed for today, we find Jesus teaching the disciples that sacrifice: denying oneself, taking up one's cross, and following him, even through pain and suffering, is an essential part of our growing in faith. The disciples to not want to hear this news, and we can sympathize with Peter who is affronted by such talk. His reaction to Jesus' teaching is akin to our reaction to God's request to Abraham. We don't understand it and we don't like it and it scares us.
Jesus teaches that sacrifice is voluntary. As Abraham could have turned back, as the disciples could have turned back, so can we turn away from following Jesus. Taking up our cross is voluntary.
Jesus teaches that we are called to take up the cross for the sake of others. Sacrifice is not some penance or plea for pity or praise. The cross is something we take up to make life better for someone else and to please God.
Finally, Jesus tells us that it is only by such sacrificial living that we will find our lives, that we will become the human beings God intends us to be, the kind of human beings we, in our heart of hearts, want to be.
Jesus not only tells us about the sacrifice he and we are called to give, he lives it out. Frederick Buechner, whom I quoted a few minutes ago, describes the extent of Jesus' love and sacrifice. He shows us how far Jesus goes in loving and giving of himself to others and how far God calls us to go.
Buechner writes: "The love for equals is a human thing ~ of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles."
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing ~ the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing ~ to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is love for the enemy ~ love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. This is God's love. It conquers the world."
The path of sacrifice that Jesus trod included his loving his friends and family, the poor and oppressed, those more fortunate, and even his enemies. The same path for us, as it was for Abraham and the disciples, yet it is the only path that leads to our becoming the saints, the holy people of God, we have it in us to become.
And it is the only path that leads to joy and fullness of life. Philip Yancey in his book ?The Jesus I Never Knew,? writes about this joy. He says that his career as a journalist afforded him opportunities to interview famous people, "stars", including NFL football greats, authors, politicians and so on. These are the people who dominate the media, folks whose lives seem overflowing with blessings. Instead he found a group of people tormented by self-doubt and worse.
He also spent time among the people he calls "servants." Doctors and nurses who work among the outcast, a Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for homeless in Chicago, relief workers in Somalia, and ordinary folks who devote themselves to caring for one another. He said he was prepared to honor and admire the "servants", to hold them up as inspiring examples. He was not, however, prepared to envy them. But he did. He found the "servants" possessed qualities of depth and richness and even joy that he had not found elsewhere. Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, often "wasting" their talents and skills on the poor and uneducated. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them. And so will we.