This sermon was preached with Kirk of Our Savior in Westland, MI and was focused upon Matthew 16:21-28 and Hebrews 12:-12. An video recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
When I was in college, I had a professor who once asked our class,
“Is the life of faith like a baby gorilla or like a baby kitten?”
We all looked at him a bit perplexed as to where he was going. I think he might have been referencing some other tradition or teaching that I don’t know about. But I remember him saying this, and it’s always stayed with me:
From our perspective, the life of faith very much feels like being a baby gorilla. We are riding on the back of our mother who is swinging through the trees, and we are trying to hang on for dear life. We are likely gripping very tightly, afraid that we are going to fall into oblivion. Sometimes, the life of faith feels very much like that.
But maybe the life of faith is like being a kitten, a little baby cat. Our mother comes and grabs us by the scruff of the neck and carries us around. We can flail about all we want to, but she’s got us. We are secure. There is a love in which we are secure.
So I wonder if you resonate with any of that:
“Is the life of faith like a baby gorilla or like a baby kitten?”
The truth of the matter is, it’s probably both. Sometimes, our experience feels very much like that gorilla. But we gather together, even virtually, to proclaim the truth that God does have us by the scruff of the neck, and there is a love we cannot lose. Since we cannot lose it, we can live it. We can make that love known in the world.
And we certainly know that the world needs it. We need it.
Thankfully, I’ve been sleeping pretty well over all, but a few nights ago, I woke up around 3am with some anxious energy. And I thought, “What do I even begin to focus this upon? Where to start? Because there are so many directions.
Do I focus on a global pandemic? A hurricane? Wildfires? Is it that Jacob Blake, a Black man was shot in the back by police officers in front of his children? Do I focus upon the white teenager who has joined a militia and has now killed protestors? Is my anxious energy about the fact that students have moved back in and are starting classes at the University of Michigan this week in my town, and we are expecting — we expect! — an outbreak of the coronavirus? Is it the fact that an election is coming up and tensions are high? Is it that I and many others haven’t had a hug in 170 days? Is it the fact that people are not getting their medications in the very-slowed-down USPS mail delivery? Is it the economic crisis that people are feeling deeply with great concern for those who are low-paid essential workers?
Where do we begin? Where do we end?
How deeply we long for these challenges and these pains to end. In the middle of the night, or during the waking hours, we may absolutely feel as though the life of faith and life itself are an experience of being a baby gorilla, trying to hang on to anything we can, and most certainly, hanging onto our mother.
But is it possibly true that we are held? And we are invited to give our lives to the Great End — that is, the goal, and that is, the purpose of this great God who holds us? We are invited to give our lives to love itself.
There is no doubt that Jesus knows struggle and hardship too. In our text this morning, we hear that Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Jerusalem. In one sense, they are going to celebrate their religious holy days. But Jesus has also initiated a movement — a powerful one where people are giving their lives over to love, loving God and living into a coming Kingdom of God, including their typically excluded neighbors, and weaving together community among those who are poor, those who are the outcast, those who have done harm and want to turn their lives around, those who are often dismissed, and those whose bodies are not often uplifted. And a love like that and a teaching about this Kingdom — this Kindom, this Community of Kinship — is threatening to the Roman Empire, that is occupying the land.
Jesus knows he’s walking into trouble. He begins to prepare the disciples. He says to them that he must go there, and he must undergo suffering and be killed. They don’t know how to take that in. How can they take that in?
He says on the third day, he’ll be raised. They don’t even know what that means. And Peter is in denial about it. “God forbid, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Jesus is one who loves expansively, but he’s also a realist. He knows this is coming. And it’s hard to hear Peter say things like this. “Get behind me, Satan!” — Satan, which can also be translated as “accuser.” “You are a stumbling block. You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus knows he is about to be a victim of state violence. As we read the story, we know it too. Jesus knows what it means to struggle and what it means to identify with a community that is threatened and struggles also. We follow a victim of state violence. We need to remember that.
And he has some tough things to say: “If any want 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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
We shouldn’t make any mistake about it — following Jesus is costly. Because we are giving our lives to a love that is dedicated to the One Who Holds Us Fast, and we are called to a faith that is dedicated to our neighbors, especially those who are marginalized, excluded, maligned, stigmatized, downtrodden, and those who are victims of state violence.
We’re called to this too. Of course, we want to preserve our lives. Of course, when we wake up at 3am, we want to preserve that. But there’s this paradox that Jesus speaks about. It’s not always that we’re called to be a martyr, but we are called to give up our position of self-preservation at all costs and lean our posture in the direction of love and this Kindom itself — this Kingdom where the God who holds us fast, calls us to hold each other fast. We don’t do it perfectly or at its fullness like God, but we practice it again and again, and with whatever we have — even if it feels meager — we lean it in the direction of this love. And we will find life there.
We will. We have. We will enact life there when we begin to see that life itself and love itself are held in this God — a God who loves us and gives us life, a God who holds us fast and calls us to hold one another fast. We do this with and for each other.
We’re invited into this. It’s costly. But it’s abundant. There is abundant life in this invitation.
And so we hear the text also from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Who is that we follow? Who is that seeks the ultimate claim in our lives? Who provides us with abundance beyond what we can imagine in the lives of each other?
This text says,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that 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 — looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who seeks our ultimate claim — 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.
Yes, he endured a cross. He absolutely endured a cross. This way of living and loving is costly. He also did so for the sake of the joy that was set before him. When we lose our lives into this great vision, we are found. We are enlivened. It is the great paradox of the life of faith.
And he disregarded its shame, loving those who were often regarded with shame. And that cross wasn’t the end. It wasn’t. He sits at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus is no longer on that cross, or on an execution gurney, or under the knee of state power.
Jesus has risen, and we proclaim him, and we live in his direction. And when we do so, we are given one another. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we are called into this vision, never alone — never! We are always with each other.
So today, I hold up a paradox in our own living and our own loving.
There is no doubt there are times when we wake up at 3am, and we are worried about what is happening in our lives and in the direction of this world. That’s valid. It feels like hanging on for dear life. It feels like the life of a baby gorilla.
Love is the Great End. It is the purpose. It is the goal of this God who is Love itself, enacted in the world. When we give over our lives to this direction, we will find our neighbors. We will find a great cloud of witnesses. We will find that Great End and that Great Purpose, and we will find that we are held. We are held.
So know this, once more: You are loved with a love you cannot lose. You simply cannot lose it. And since that is true, you can live it. We can live it.
Thanks be to the God who loves us just like this.