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Generosity As The Clue To Life

Sermons on the Gospel Readings
Series II, Cycle B
All the great founders of our religious traditions offer secrets to the good life. Buddha says life is achieved when we have smothered all desire. Mohammed tells us that life begins when we submit to the will of Allah. The Hindu tradition urges us to find life by understanding reality is illusionary, and behind it the abiding reality of Brahman. The Moses tradition insists that life is found through obedience to the law.

All these insights are part of our spiritual heritage. They help us to discover the meaning and purpose of life. We need to pay attention to them and to consider that these are part of God's gift to everyone.

In today's lection, Jesus offers us his clue to the meaning of life. As Mark tells this story, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him. They tell him that some say he is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah, and others say he is a prophet. Jesus then directs his question to Peter who says, "You are the Messiah." At this we might think that there would be cheering, dancing, and loud shouting. Instead, Jesus begins to tell them that as the messianic Son of Man, he will endure much suffering and rejection by the religious authorities. Peter protests, but is reprimanded for his objections. Then Jesus makes clear his clue to the meaning of life:

If any wants 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
-- Mark 8:34-35

For Jesus, the secret of life is giving it away. He insists, quite in contrast to popular culture, that we do not gain life through our rush for security, possessions, and the fulfillment of our ambitions.

The Disciples Were Not Too Thrilled

We do not respond favorably to Jesus telling us the meaning of life is found in giving it away. Similarly we don't like the poet Wordsworth pointing out to us that in "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." In some way or another, most of us have been taken in by our cultural attitude saying, "We can have it all." A recent newspaper story told about some women who gave this a try -- full tilt at their vocation along with rearing a family. They were told they could have success and meaning in the work place, as well as the usual parental satisfactions of rearing children. However, in time, many of them came to feel that they were not doing well, either as parents or at the office. This resulted in some of them putting their professions on hold so they could fulfill their responsibilities of child rearing and enjoying the unique joys of parenthood. It is false to say that career and parenthood cannot be joined in a meaningful way, but we need to face the difficulties involved, including the consideration that few make enough money to make a go of it.

Of course, men have the same dilemma. They try to get ahead in their career while being a responsible and caring parent; yet again, there are real dangers. In one extreme example, a successful businessman said he gave his sons a whole day spent with him once a year -- on their birthdays! The rest of the year, he was an absent parent.

The "you can have it all" slogan seldom mentions what sacrifices will be necessary and who will pay them. Choosing one good thing always means that a lot of other good things will be unavailable. And if we try to hold too many vital options together, we will risk being broken in the process. The trainer for that wonderful little horse, almost winning the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, "Smarty Jones," said he would rather be known as a good dad than a good trainer. He has a realism that goes back all the way to Jesus, knowing we can't have it all and those who say otherwise are lying!

A young high school student went out for the football team in his freshman year. He wanted to be a dazzling quarterback, with fantasies of someday leading his team to victory, but it soon became apparent that he didn't have the talent. It was a great blow to his ego, for in sports undue attention is given to quarterbacks, strikeout pitchers, high-scoring basketball players, and 100-meter dashers. With some exception there isn't much attention given to the rest of the team. With little enthusiasm, our student wandered down to where an assistant coach was working with the linemen. He asked if he could join them. The coach said "Okay," and suggested he work out at center. In time, the student played on two championship teams, one of them going undefeated. He couldn't have his all-encompassing dream of being the star quarterback, but in letting go of his unrealistic dream, he enjoyed the team's success.

Jesus Offers The Cross As The Way To Life

The cross is the way to life. A passage in the book of Hebrews goes like this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
-- Hebrews 12:1-2

This is an interesting text. Clearly it says Jesus' sense of the rich joy of giving up his own life for others, drove him to the cross. Life is found in giving it up, sometimes totally, in the service for the needs of others.

The joy of the early Christian martyrs provided a powerful evangelistic appeal. Though Christians were burned, beheaded, eaten by wild animals, or whatever terrible torture their captors devised, they expressed a joyful sense of privilege in dying for Jesus and the faith. One of the theological giants of the twentieth century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Convinced that Hitler was an evil that could not be tolerated any longer, he joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. Things went awry, the plot was exposed and Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were imprisoned. A few days before liberation he was hung, telling his fellow prisoners as he went to the gallows, "The best is yet to be." Bonhoeffer's theological writings have enriched us as we also wrestle with the meaning of the faith. Yet, as provocative as his theological insights remain, it was his willingness to give up his life in a cause that would rescue that world from the killing of war, which has called us to a serious response to Jesus. Bonhoeffer, who loved life and was a worldly Christian, nevertheless tells us that real life is found when we discover significant ways to give it away.

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States in the difficult days of the '70s. Inflation, Americans held captive in Iran, and a large national debt made his presidency difficult. One might understand that when he left office he would live the comfortable life of an ex-president -- collecting his presidential papers, writing a book or two, and enjoying life in his rural small town of Plains, Georgia. He had given himself away as a naval officer, governor, and as president. Yet the "retired" President Carter soon gave himself away to new causes. He became involved in Habitat for Humanity, building new homes for the poor. He supervised elections in several nations outside the United States. He gave himself away, working for the causes of peace, and he challenged his own denomination's hard, narrow theology by resigning from his church. President Carter is telling us that there is no time in our lives when we are exempt from the wisdom Jesus put down so long ago: Life is found by giving it away against the needs and hurts of others.

Modern Science Says Jesus Is Right

Interestingly enough, we are beginning to see modern science's affirmation of the contention that Jesus is right. Studies of the human brain indicate that when we focus on the needs and concerns of others, it affects our brain in a positive way. Altruistic behavior releases chemical brain processes making us to feel good about what we are doing for others. Now we know why the happiest people we know are those who live this way: they are always thinking about the needs and problems of others. They consider ways they can help others, either by themselves or in the company of others. Some may prefer to get their high by alcohol, drugs, or in the excitement of a great musical or sports event. What they don't know is that there are simpler and less dangerous ways to life's joys through giving themselves to the needs of neighbors far and near.

Do we ever wonder why volunteerism is so important for so many people? Obviously, there is no material reward in it. Nor do volunteers receive much publicity. Many of the tasks of volun-teerism are routine and often beneath the skills of the volunteers. Even so, the volunteers come back to their assignments -- day after day, week after week, year after year. The father of one person, living in a retirement community, became legally blind. In his late '80s he could have settled down and waited for his life to end. However, he volunteered at the medical quarters in his retirement village, taking patients in wheelchairs out for a walk around the lagoon. With sight only for the edges of the sidewalks, he gave himself to helping those patients enjoy a bit of time out in the fresh air and sunshine. One has to believe that he received joyful meaning much greater than just sitting homebound in his blindness.

If the church has any work to do in our time, it will be to challenge the dominant culture's insistence that the meaning of life means finishing first, exalting material things, and having the admiration and adulation of others. Some of these might come to us in our lives, but they will not give us the rich meanings that Jesus insists are in giving ourselves away. We are a religion of the cross. The cross is not a historic event that gains us the forgiveness and mercy of God as Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion Of The Christ, suggests. Rather the cross is the call and claim of Jesus to give ourselves away; paying little attention to riches, fame, or numerous toasts flung our way. The work of today's church is to offer a second and contrary option to the world's deceptive message.
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