Sunday, August 28, 2011

Amazing (and expensive) grace

Text: Matthew 16:21-18 (the cost of discipleship)

When a person decides to become a minister in the United Church of Canada there are many steps in the process. And perhaps the most important of these are a series of formal interviews with members of one's United Church Presbytery and Conference.

In the first of these interviews with me in November 2008, a minister on the panel asked me if I had a favourite gospel text, and I said "yes." It is the text we just heard today, the one where Jesus says that those who want to become his followers must take up their cross and follow him. Jesus' difficult message strikes me as a wake-up call, or as a call to enlightenment . . .

By the way, in the final of those interviews this past January -- the one that approved me for ordination -- I was asked to answer the other side of that question from the first interview. This time, I was asked to name my least favourite passage from the gospels. As before, I chose a text from Matthew. And I will preach on that text from Matthew 25 when it comes up in our assigned readings on the last Sunday of the church year on November 20th. That Sunday, also called Reign of Christ Sunday, is the final one before Advent . . .

This week as I thought about Jesus' statement that we must lose our lives in order to save them I was also led to think about the death of Jack Layton, Federal Opposition Leader last Monday and of his funeral yesterday afternoon.

I have a couple of connections to Jack Layton. When I returned to Toronto last spring from my internship in Alberta, I moved into an apartment in east Toronto that is located in the riding represented by Layton in Parliament. As well, my late father knew Jack Layton's parents. My father, as you might know, was a United Church minister, and his final full-time position was in the town of Hudson Quebec where Jack Layton grew up. When my parents arrived at Wyman Memorial United Church in Hudson in the late 70s, Jack's father was the Superintendent of the Sunday School there. Finally, my older brother was briefly a colleague of Layton's when they both taught Political Science at Ryerson University in the early 1990s. This was after Layton had failed in a bid to become mayor of Toronto.

Over the years, I have followed Layton's political career, and not always with approval. For instance during his run for mayor in 1991, a TV report showed Layton on election day sprinting through a college residence trying to get students to vote. I wondered why he would bother since he must have known that he was going to lose in a landslide!

But then Layton's energy and optimism are some of the qualities that people liked about him, so perhaps I should have been charmed instead of puzzled.

On Monday, one of Layton's parliamentary colleagues said that Jack had given his life for his country. To me, that statement seems like a bit of a stretch. However, the outpouring of emotion following his untimely death is a moment where many of us are confronting mortality, thinking of public service, and reflecting on the values of love, hope and optimism that Jack promoted in his final Open Letter to Canadians published on Monday, the day of his death.

When I watched Layton's funeral on TV yesterday, it felt like an important moment for Baby Boomers. At age 61, Layton was among the first wave of Canada's post-War baby-boom generation. And the funeral in its choice of music, its tone, and the social issues it raised, resonated with me. I really appreciated the funeral, and I hope that the the funeral and the reactions to Jack's death have positive effects -- for Jack's loved ones and friends, and perhaps also for the tenor of politics in our country . . .

Death usually saddens or scares us, and we don't wish it for ourselves or for others. So I imagine that many of us might identify with Peter in our Gospel reading today. Peter reacts with horror to Jesus' prediction that he will suffer and be killed in Jerusalem. "God forbid it, Lord!" Peter says. But Jesus' reply to him is hardly sympathetic: "Get behind me Satan!" he says to Peter.

Even more startling, I believe, is what Jesus says next. Jesus says that to be one of his followers, we too must take up our cross and follow him. We too are called to suffer and die. Jesus does, of course, provide an upside to this stark message, the idea that by losing our life we will gain new life. However, the cost of gaining this new life might strike many of us, and not just Peter, as being high.

I started today by saying that this text is the most important one for me in all the gospels. But despite that, I fear that I won't do it justice today. Not only do the meanings and implications of Jesus' call here confront and challenge me, but I also confess that I have let the other services I have conducted this week -- at the health centres in Rockglen and Coronach, at the Lodge in Rockglen, and at a wedding in Rockglen yesterday -- get in the way of fully preparing for Sunday services.

I am glad then, to realize, that this key text shows up many times in our assigned reading list. The next time will be during Lent next spring when we will hear the original version of it from Mark's gospel, and I hope to go deeper into it then. For now, I will lay out some my reactions to Jesus' call to take up the cross.

When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, he does not just predict the details of his Passion. Suffering and death are also the human condition. And although Jesus is God in human form, he is also human. Of course, very few of us will die violently at the hands of the state. But we all will die. And unfortunately, many of us will suffer for at least a while before we die.

The Christian message is that death, although it represents the loss of everything, is also the beginning of new life in God. Jesus' message to take up the cross, I believe, shows us the possibility of new life this side of death even as it helps us to know more about our ultimate hope.

Death is an affront not just to our bodies, but to our egos. We are born, we come to consciousness, and we build lives filled with ambition and plans. We develop egos, and we want to live forever. But life gets in the way. We make mistakes. Our plans don't pan out. We become sick. Over time, our limitations become more and obvious. And sometimes, with grace, our egos might dissolve in the face of difficulties or pain, and we might touch life beyond ego. We might touch God in Christ and so experience eternity in this or any moment.

Such grace-filled moments beyond ego do not have to be connected to pain, of course. Sometimes when we are in love, or in moments of ecstasy in nature, worship, art, we also might find our individual egos dissolving. In such moments, we touch the Ground of Being that supports us in every moment. Perhaps spouse with spouse, parent with child, or loving friends celebrating or mourning together -- these can all moments where we sometimes "die" to our ego-filled lives and rise to new life in communion with each other and God.

The tough news is that some of our most frequent confrontations with ego occur in moments of pain or failure. But such moments of crisis can also be filled with a deep joy. Any addict who has admitted his helplessness in the face of his addiction and has offered his will up to God in the midst of despair can remind us of this truth. Sometimes when we hit bottom, we let go of our distractions and our plans and instead know and experience grace.

Such grace does not mean that our addictions won't harm us, or that our ambitions or hopes for this world will be fulfilled. But it does mean that we might gain a new perspective on addiction, ambition, or worldly plans. In this new perspective, we might see, if only for a moment, how God offers us a life beyond ego.

This is a resurrected life that contains a deeper kind of joy. In such grace-filled moments, nothing depends on our efforts. All that we possess and all that we know is a gift from God. The cost of getting to this grace might often include pain and loss. But new life beyond ego is precious beyond that cost and worth our very lives.

This side of the grave, I think it is rare for any of us to sustain such moments of union with God. But when such moments of joy pass, there is always the next moment, or the next, or the next. And at the end of our lives, although we quite understandably fear the end, there is our sure hope of reunion with God's Spirit through Christ. This hope is not for our egos. Instead, it is a promise of the joy and ecstasy of those ego-free moments of union with God that we sometimes and unexpectedly experience in this life.

In his call to take up our cross, Jesus invites us to confront the joy and pain of the human condition. The call reminds us that we are going to die, and so helps free us to let go of our  anxieties. When with grace, these joyous moments appear, we experience the liberation that awaits us at the end of life when our egos will confront their ultimate crisis of death.

In the public mourning for Jack Layton this week, many of us have stared at our own mortality and so at the seeming futility of life. But Layton's message in his Open Letter was the opposite of futility. He promoted the values of love, hope and optimism.

Promoting these values does not meant that we won't die. They don't mean that by living into these values we will be able to solve all of our social problems. But from the point of view of the Gospel, reminding ourselves of love, hope and optimism is also a way to remind ourselves of a life of service, a life beyond ego, and the promise of a life of union with God in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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