How to Live
Some of you may know that I serve as the Anglican chaplain at the Carleton University Spirituality Centre. This past Tuesday evening, as a chaplain, I took part in a Carleton U orientation week session on the topic of faith and spirituality. We had a great conversation with Carleton students from around the world, some of whom have just arrived in Ottawa. The moderator of the discussion was a young Muslim student, and his first question of the evening was this:
Why is your faith important to you, and how does it help you live your life?
Which made me think of the gospel that we just heard.
On Tuesday, we talked about how our faith provides us with a basic orientation and a sense of direction in our lives. How our faith helps us wrestle with the big questions of life: who am I, what’s my purpose, how am I going to live my life, how am I to live fully, to live well?
Or, as one of us said, the “what am I going to do with my life?” question.
Can our faith help us to explore these big questions?
In today’s gospel, Jesus says:
“Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those that lose their life will save it.”
It’s not exactly a straightforward answer to the “what am I going to do with my life?” question. You might say that Jesus’ response sounds more like a riddle, or maybe a paradox, so we’re going to have to dig a bit deeper.
When you put this saying in the context of all the things that Jesus said, of how Jesus lived his life, of the turn toward the cross that happens right here in today’s gospel, it starts to sound like Jesus is saying that the way to live well, the way to live fully, the way to be the person you were created to be, is to live a life of sacrificial love, a life of self-giving for the sake of others.
Does that make sense to you? Does it jive with your own experience?
There has been a lot of research in recent years in the field of positive psychology. Researchers want to figure out what it is exactly that makes us humans happy. I think we all want to be happy. But happiness can be elusive.
In one study, the researchers created two groups of people and gave everyone a $20 bill. To the first group, they said, go spend that $20 on something for yourself, something that will make you happy. To the second group they said, take the $20, and spend it on someone else, try to make someone else happy. Give it away, or buy something for someone. The researchers measured the well-being of each individual both before and after the $20 bill exercise. Guess which group showed the greatest gain in happiness? It was no contest. The people that gave away the $20 were significantly happier at the end of the day than the folks that used the money for themselves.
Does that surprise anyone? It shouldn’t really. If we have been created in the image of God, a God whose fundamental character as revealed by Jesus is to be gracious, to be giving, generous and loving, then it makes sense that when we give to others, we are doing what we were created to do, and it feels good.
Of course today’s gospel cuts a lot deeper than what we do with $20. Jesus is talking about the giving of our lives, the giving of our very selves. “For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life will save it.”
Because if we embrace a life of self-giving for the sake of others, if we embark on the path of sacrificial love, the love of neighbour, the love even of our enemies, then the stakes can be high. We see that with the people we sometimes think of as the heroes of our faith.
Start with Jesus as an example. It’s no accident that today’s gospel takes place in Caesarea Philippi, the site of a temple devoted to the emperor, Caesar Augustus. Mark has set up a contrast here: Caesar Augustus is ambitious and self-interested, a political and military leader willing to oppress others to further his own goals. Peter sees that Jesus, with the things he can do and the followers he’s attracting, has the potential to beat Caesar at his own game, to gain military power and launch a revolution. But Jesus chooses a different path, the path of sacrificial love and of self-giving service for the sake of others, knowing full well that this path will result in rejection, suffering and death at the hands of those in power. For Jesus, the way of self-giving will have the most serious of consequences. And yet he is able to trust God that this is indeed the path to new life, to rising again, and it’s what he needs to do.
We can think of other examples. At our Wednesday bible study we talked about Ghandi as another example of someone who, inspired by Jesus, chose the path of self-giving, choosing to oppose the British Empire in India by the way of non-violence. Ghandi too paid the ultimate price.
I remember a few years ago watching the Academy Awards on TV, and the contrast between the performances of two of the songs nominated for the Oscar has really stuck with me when I think about how I want to live my life.
The first song was the theme song from The Lego Movie, Everything is Awesome. Now, my apologies to those of you who like The Lego Movie, but that song and the way it was performed, was anything but awesome. It was more like taking a silly little song, and then adding more and more fluff to it in a futile attempt to make it awesome. Add more dancers. Add more colour, more lights, a rainbow. Spin on your head. Spin again, throw in an awesome possum and some Lego statues. There was nothing inspiring there. Sure maybe it was fun, and that’s okay once in a while, but it was superficial, all style with no substance, no meaning, no purpose.
That’s not the life I want. There’s got to be more to life than that. I want a life that means something. I want to be lifted up. I want to be inspired by a purpose so great that I’m willing to put my life at its service. And then minutes later the stage darkened and the black and white image of a soaring metal bridge filled the screen. The first chord sounded from the piano, and John Legend began to sing Glory, the song from the movie Selma. Now that’s what Jesus was talking about. The march across the bridge in Selma in 1965. “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Self-giving for the sake of others. Sacrificial love. Denying ourselves for a good greater than ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other courageous African Americans marched across that bridge in Selma in order to obtain the civil rights for African Americans that many of us take for granted. The first time they tried to get across the bridge they were brutally attacked by state troopers. One man was murdered.
But the marchers persevered, at great risk to themselves. People flooded into Selma to support them, and a few days later, 25,000 people marched from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery and forced the U.S. government to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a time of great fear and suffering, and yet also great joy. “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.” You want to know what Jesus is talking about? Well, it doesn’t look like the Lego Movie. It doesn’t look like playing it safe. It doesn’t look like getting more and more stuff. It doesn’t look like being entertained, prosperous, or successful. I mean, “what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” No. The life God is calling us to looks a lot more like that bridge in Selma, a lot more like the sacrificial love demonstrated by the people who walked across that bridge at great personal cost and risk. That’s how you save your life. That’s how to really live, to live the abundant life that God is calling us to.
Want to save your life? Lose it! Turn towards your neighbour in service, love and generosity. It doesn’t always have to be heroic, in fact it usually isn’t.
But when we set aside a want of our own in order to serve the needs of someone else, we experience a moment, dare I say, of glory. We do it as parents when our baby cries in the middle of the night. We find glory in those moments when we give up our claims to power and strength and even a good night’s sleep in order to serve others. Sometimes it comes naturally; sometimes it’s a small thing; sometimes it is hard and requires a God-given strength. For each of us, our Selma will look different. Sacrificial love and service to others take many shapes and forms, some of which will indeed require great courage, some of which will simply become good habits.
But make no mistake. This is at the core of our faith. This is what we are all about.
“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.”
Homily: Yr B P24, Sept 12 2021, Trinity
Readings: Proverbs 1.20-33, Psalm 19, James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38