I saw a pizza truck at the grocery store. On the side, it said, “It’s not delivery – it’s DiGiorno.” But it was delivering the pizzas. So was it really DiGiorno?
I met a man once who always told lies, who never told the truth. How did I know this? Why, he told me so himself.
These are paradoxes, logical games beloved of philosophers and grade-school students all through the ages. (Will Achilles ever catch that tortoise?) A paradox, say the rhetoric teachers, makes two statements that, on the surface, contradict each other – but that, upon closer examination, you discover that they may both be true.
There is a paradox in the passage we just read, where Jesus says “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake … will save it.” (Mark 8:27-38) Which is it, Lord, you can almost hear the disciples cry – Follow you and live, or follow you to die?
And of course, the answer is yes. The answer is both. The answer is that following Jesus means dying, and following Jesus means living. Dying to our self, our sin, our wayward passion — and living a new life formed by God. Following Jesus means dying and living. It always has, and it always will.
So how will you die this week? And what will your new life look like?
Friday night, here at church, there was a funeral. Our teen-agers gathered to mourn the dead. They mourned kids all over the world who were dying for lack of food or medicine. Because they had been driven from their homes by war. Because their father passed AIDS on to them, or their mother passed on a drug addiction. Or because bad food has left them with a weakened immune system, and they are carried off by measles or a flu that healthier kids might survive.
They are dying, and last night our kids, as part of their 30 Hour Famine, mourned the dead. And they with their sacrifice of time and a few meals, you and I with our prayers and donations, we are all trying to bring life out of death. We are trying to create a world where children have what they need to survive, to grow, to be strong.
There was a funeral here last night. But of course, many of us have been thinking about other funerals, held last week in Florida, after the violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It is hard to believe that there has been yet another shooting at yet another school. In 2018, so far, there has been a mass shooting in the United States every 60 hours. Not all at schools, of course. But still.
And I will not pretend that I know how to end the bloodshed. I only know, and you know too, that it can’t go on. If it is our heritage that prevents us from being the nation we should be, then our heritage must die and be reborn. Our laws? Or broken politics? Let them die so that the nation may have a new and better life.
But let’s set all that aside for a moment. Let’s talk about what we know best — ourselves. Again I ask: How will you die this week? And how will you be reborn?
Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. That is what Jesus says. And although it is no paradox by itself, it creates one for us.
To deny ourselves means to reject the idea that we ourselves, that I myself, am the center of the universe, the most important factor in any equation. This means overcoming our ego and its needs, our body and its desires; overcoming a society that tells us to look out for Number One, to put ourselves, our family – our people – ahead of any strangers. Self-denial calls us away from tribe and nation. It is hard.
And yet some Christians are so good at self-denial that they miss the other side of the paradox. Some of us think about others so much that we ignore our own needs.
And that sounds very noble, putting everybody else first, until you realize that sometimes people who give without receiving do so from a place of hurt and shame, because at some point in their lives they were told “You don’t matter; your needs don’t matter; the only value you have is in taking care of other people.” And yet Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself – and if we do not love ourselves, then our love for others is shallow indeed.
Or worse yet, people make a point of putting others first out of their own self-righteousness and search for moral superiority. Look at me, world! Look how selfless I am! Now there is a paradox worthy of Zeno: to be proud of being humble.
But we are Christians. Our faith is all about paradox. A Christian is both a saint and a sinner, as Martin Luther said. Master of all and servant of all. Or, as Jesus puts it plainly: We die in order to live.
So how will you die this week?
Will it be a ritual confession of sins, and an amendment of life? Will it be a quiet resolution to stop drinking, or be kinder to some one who loves you? Will you take one action, however large or small, to make the world a better place? Or conversely, will you stop driving yourself so hard, stop running around like Martha of Bethany, take time for prayer and meditation and standing in awe before God’s presence?
How will you die? And how will you share God’s gift of life?
Because here is why, even though we are saved by grace, our works still matter: people who live a new life of the spirit are able to give the world a new life of the flesh – by breaking down the walls of fear and hatred, of poverty and sickness, to let the waters of life flow freely, to make the world new not in their own image but in God’s.
And new life, whether it is a life of the spirit or of the flesh, has only one source: it comes from God. That’s the point of all these paradoxes. That God gives us life; that our captivity to sin is a kind of death, from which God will awaken us now, even as on the last day he will awaken our bodies, and welcome us into everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Second Sunday of Lent, 2018)