Beloved, as most of you probably know by now, it’s Stewardship Season! That time of year where we talk about the church’s finances and our giving. Next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday, the Sunday we bring our pledge cards with us to church, with our annual commitments of time, talent, and money written down on them.
And, so, to really encourage everyone to dig deep and give till it hurts, I’ve chosen a scripture lesson all about martyrdom. Because what could be more inspirational for generosity than imagining your pledge card as giant cross you’ll have to drag around behind you for an entire year? No? Well, if you don’t find the image of financial crucifixion motivating you to get out checkbook, don’t lose hope just yet. Maybe there’s something more to giving than just “losing our lives in order to save our lives.” I mean, what does that really mean?
Have any of you ever had the experience of someone giving you something—maybe it was a little money, or a gift or object of some kind, or maybe if was just a kind word, a listening ear, a smile, friendship, love; maybe it was someone close to you, or maybe it was a total stranger—and when they gave it to you, whatever it was, it meant more to you than they ever could have known. You’ll know this moment if it’s happened to you, and I hope that it has happened to you, because it will be burned into your memory.
Like on my first day of first grade we were released at recess onto the schoolyard and I had no idea what was going on. No one explained to us this is how recess works, here’s where you can go and where you can’t go, here’s how long it’s gonna last, here’s how you’ll know it’s time to go back to your class. I liked knowing all the things about what to expect. So, I got out there on the extensive school grounds, totally untethered, not sure where I was supposed to be, and I started panicking and crying. A playground monitor noticed me crying and she asked me what was wrong. And I told her that I fell down and scraped my knee because I was too embarrassed to tell her that I was scared.
She asked me to pull up my pant leg. I shoulda seen that one coming! I pulled it up. And there was no scrape. And seeing right through me, this wise woman kissed my knee. And then asked me if that felt better. And I told her it did because I appreciated that we were both still pretending that I had scraped my knee. And then she told me where to go and play and what to expect and where the boundaries were and how I would get back to my classroom and teacher when it was all over. And to this day, 35 years later, I appreciate what she did for me and how she did it.
I’m sure if she could have known in that moment that I’d remember what she was doing for me and preach about in a sermon in 2019, she would’ve been absolutely gobsmacked. For her it, I’m sure, it was nothing. This was not a cross-hauling, life-losing effort on her part. The giving was easy, reflexive, just a little something she never thought of again. She could never have known just what her concern, her kiss, and her kindness did for me in a moment that I really needed something. Has anyone ever offered something like that to you?
Even a small little gift, a little kindness, can change the course of a life. I heard a story on NPR recently about a young woman who’s a librarian. And the reason she became a librarian is because there was a year of her life when she was a small child when her family was homeless. And they spent a lot of their time in the town library because they had no where else to go. And there was a children’s librarian who always spoke to this little girl, and was kind, and would pick out books just for her that she thought the little girl would like. And in this radio piece the little girl, all grown up, now a children’s librarian herself, was going back to the town library to tell this librarian just what a difference she had made in her life, that she had shaped the whole course of her future. She had become a children’s librarian because of what this woman had done for her. And when the woman heard this story she was astounded. Very grateful. Crying. But astounded. She was just being a librarian, doing what librarians do. She never considered that she was shaping a child’s future.
I sometimes wonder, have I ever been the town librarian, or have I ever been the playground monitor to somebody else? I really wonder. I mean, I know there are times that I have touched people’s lives! And I’m in a position and profession where I get to see that very clearly. But I wonder about the times I’ve touched a life in a profound way without ever knowing it. Maybe there are good stories out there that I’ll never hear, but that I’m in—life-changing stories. I hope so.
I don’t know for sure that it’s ever happened! But it feels good—maybe even more than good—it feels right that the person that I am has maybe been capable at times of doing good in the world that even I can’t keep track of it. Right? It’s beyond me, off my radar, rippling into the world and people’s lives in ways that I don’t understand. The goodness is bigger than me. That feels meaningful.
I mean imagine if you set out one day to do one good deed. And at the end of the day you got into bed feeling tired and content because you achieved your one good deed, but there were three other good deeds you managed to do without ever knowing it, without ever feeling it. You just gave those three away without even thinking. It was just who you were. As if it was what you were made of. It was an effortless manifestation of your life.
Some people feel like God has a plan for their lives, for what will happen—that God will shape the details of their life. I feel like God has a plan for me, for my life, but not necessarily for what will happen—not the day to day. Instead, I feel like God has a plan for me (and for all of us) about who God is calling me to be, in the ultimate sense—my Self, my best and truest Self beyond the circumstances of life.
I feel like that Self already exists, that God has already created and already knows that Self. And that I am a work in progress being drawn to that Self. And in everything I do, in everything I learn, in every relationship, and in every difficulty, I get a clearer vision of my Self, the true Self, that God has created.
When I think about this true Self, ultimate Self, maybe even Soul would be the right word, I know—just like the goodness we do without ever knowing it—that this soul is bigger than me. I want my soul, or my spirit, or whatever the right word for it is, to do more, and to be more, and to love neighbor, and praise God in ways that my little, grasping ego never could. And I think that the more we let go of trying to hold on to what we’ve got in the small little individual sphere that we can keep track of, the more we will open up a clear spiritual path to hearing God’s call and to merging with the vision of God’s best hope for us—our true Self.
So, yes, one of the ways of reading the words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” is to think of a pretty straightforward martyrdom—dying on a cross like Jesus. But, Beloved, even in the season of Lent, we know that that is not the whole story of the cross. The story of execution and torture is the small and sinful story of the cross. When Jesus’ destiny intersected with the Roman cross of death, even the cross was transformed. It became a renewed, resurrected kind of symbol. We decorate our churches with it. We wear it around our necks. We kneel before it, pray before it. It is holy. It’s like Jesus revealed the cross’ true Self, which was bigger and better than any Roman executioner could have ever imagined.
Maybe when Jesus asks us to pick our crosses and to follow him, he’s not asking us to go on the journey to martyrdom, but on the journey to discovering our true Selves by letting go, by giving away, by emptying. Long before it was an instrument of death and oppression, the cross was an ancient symbol of wholeness and completeness. That’s what Jesus did to the cross, in a sense—he transformed it from sin and death back into wholeness and completeness. And that’s what Jesus wants to do for us—to transform us in the same way—back into what God’s dream for us.
Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Again, on the surface, it sounds like martyrdom. If you die for Jesus, you’ll go to heaven, or something like that. But the Greek word here that’s translated as “life” is psyche. There’s another Greek word that gets translated as life—zoe—which is the word that is the simple opposite of death. A living and breathing person has zoe, a dog has zoe, even plants can have zoe. But psyche is a far bigger word—less medical and more holistic. In fact, in the New Testament psyche is translated as “life” 40 times, but as “soul” 58 times. And here’s how one Greek dictionary defines the word psyche, “the (human) soul in so far as it is constituted that by the right use of the aids offered it by God it can attain its highest end.”
Jesus isn’t just talking about living and dying. He’s talking about becoming who we were meant to be—becoming our highest end, our truest Selves, our soul-lives. Jesus is showing us a path. He says that if we want to save or make whole our true Selves, then the path is not a path of glorification and gain, it is ultimately a path in which we give our gifts away.
This week the world was rocked by an evil, white supremacist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in which a shooter killed 50 Muslims at prayer and injured dozens more while broadcasting the attack live on Facebook. The white supremacist movement is not a few fringe people with mental problems; it is a growing, international, decentralized terrorist movement and ideology that is actively radicalizing white people, especially white young men, in person and online. It is becoming clear to many of us—especially to those of us who are white—that we have not taken the threat of white supremacy as seriously as we should have. As Christians, we are compelled by our deepest values to stand up against the hate and violence of white supremacy and to stand in solidarity with our Jewish, Muslim, Black, Immigrant, and Queer sisters, brothers, and siblings. In Christchurch this week we have seen the exact opposite behavior that Jesus has called us to—a man and a movement who have rejected the path of bearing the cross or losing their lives and have chosen instead to lash out at others with violence, to take the lives of others, all in attempt at some sort of sick, sinful personal and racial glorification.
We have seen this week in Christchurch everything that Jesus calls us to resist. And, yes, that resistance at times will be difficult. That resistance at times will require sacrifice. That resistance at times may even be dangerous. But experiencing the ultimate amount of misery and injustice is not the same thing as making the world a better place, and I do not believe that our suffering or our deaths are required or necessary to stand up for the Gospel and for Jesus’ words. But what is required is a willingness to give—to give ourselves away to the world, to take the risk, to be so transformed by generosity that we can’t, that we don’t even need to keep track of every good deed. To live out in goodness a resistance to the rippling evil that was put into the world in Christchurch this week. Our satisfaction comes not from suffering, but from being a force for good, a soul that gives and heals freely. Our satisfaction comes from attaining our highest end.
Beloved, it’s a small step, but I assure you that when you give to your church you can be guaranteed that it will make a difference to your community and to the world beyond these walls in ways that you may never even know about. Some of it, you will see with your own eyes! Yes! Some of it we will track and tabulate and evaluate. Some of it you will experience first hand at the wedding feast, at the baptism, when someone gets up and offers a personal testimony. But so much more of it, you won’t see. So that when you give, it’s like you’re opening up a door for your true Self, that One who God made, who is so much bigger than you, to step into a world that needs goodness, and to get to work.
Beloved, I hope as you ponder over the next week what you are able to give to your church this year that you take a good hard look at your finances and your budget. I hope that you will give generously of your time, your talent, and your money as you are able. But most of all I hope that you imagine that person that God is calling to you be. I pray that you let giving your gift be a blessing to you so big that you could never hope to keep track of it. I hope that when life is hard and God feels far away, that the knowledge that your gift is in the world, transforming lives in ways you can’t imagine, lifts you up. Because I believe that when we give away our gifts to one another, we gain the life of our true Selves. Amen.
 The New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon