“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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I want to begin with a brief interview that President Obama gave this past May. This past May – in the midst of unrest over race relations in our country and grievances about excessive use of force by police on African Americans – President Obama held a round-table discussion with Hispanic and black students at Lehman College in the Bronx and asked them what could be done to help them reach their goals. Afterward, in surprisingly candid remarks, President Obama told of his own upbringing and the opportunities he had been given, and said how the only difference between himself and many young men of color in our country was that he “grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving.” Then he said, “What it comes down to is this: Do we love these kids?”
“Do we love these kids?”
What if we really did love “these kids?” Would our country look different? I’ll come back to this in just a bit, but first, let’s take a look at this morning’s gospel lesson.
Today’s gospel is a difficult text. Jesus says that, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And then – as if that weren’t enough – he adds, “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.” Who wants to deny him- or herself and take up a cross? Who really wants to lose his or her life, and not save it? For us to hear and understand this text, we need some help.
Just as President Obama inserted the word “love” into a discussion on race, I think it would be helpful to insert the word “love” into the context of today’s gospel reading. Not merely to remind us that everything Jesus says and does he says and does with love, but more importantly because loving is the key to being Jesus’ followers, even if following him means denying ourselves and taking up our cross.
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.
If we can “see more clearly,” then we will “love more dearly;” and if we can “love more dearly,” we will “following more nearly.” Ignatius of Loyola picks up this three-fold action in his “Spiritual Exercises.” Ignatius urges those making the Exercises to ask Jesus “day by day” for the grace of “knowing you more intimately, loving you more intensely, and so following you more closely.” If we truly knew Jesus, Ignatius believed, then we could not help but love him. And if we truly loved Jesus, we could not help but follow.
And so in today’s gospel lesson, when we hear about denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following, and when we hear about losing our life if we would save it, I hope we also hear that following Jesus is something best done out of love. “Do we love this man?” the text implicitly asks.
“Do we love this man?”
Not, “Do we have a lot of love in our life generally?” Nor, “Do we love God?” in some broad, general kind of way. But “Do we love this man, Jesus Christ?” Because if we are going to “deny ourselves and take up our cross,” it won’t do to love in generalities – “Of course, I have love in my life,” or “Of course, I love God.” To take up our cross and follow Jesus will only work if “we love this man,” Jesus Christ. Because if we want to follow him more nearly, we must first love him more dearly.
“Loving him more dearly” is helped by “seeing him more clearly,” getting to know Him.
Maybe now – this year – is the time to get to know Jesus more intimately. And it takes time to get to know him. Time is the currency of love – love thrives on it, and without time love withers. Maybe now is the time to take the time to get to know Jesus more intimately. Maybe take some time each day to read the scriptures in the Daily Office lectionary. (I’d be glad to show you how to use it.) Or maybe read Mark Thibodeaux’s excellent introduction to prayer, Armchair Mystic, and do the exercises described there. Or maybe sign up for the Whole Bible Experience, or the Catechumenate, or the Centering Prayer workshop. As we take the time to get to know Jesus, we cannot help but to love Jesus. And loving him, we cannot help but follow.
Loving Jesus, then, begins with our calendar.
Or… Perhaps, when we hear today’s gospel lesson and its challenge, maybe we ask ourselves, not only, “Do we love this man?” but also “Do we love these kids?” For we will be able to love “these kids” only to the extent that we love Jesus; and we will be able to love Jesus only to the extent that we can love “these kids.” Maybe this is the year to take the time to volunteer at the Food Pantry, or at Salvation Army, or to get involved with the ministry at Messiah, “1,000 Mugs.” Take the time to volunteer to get to know “these kids” (however you define “these kids”). Because in getting to know “these kids,” chances are we will come to love them. And loving them, why wouldn’t we be willing to “take up our cross,” to give of ourselves for them?
When we know that we’re loved, amazing things can happen. If we could truly love “this man,” imagine what our lives might look like. If we were to truly love “these kids,” imagine what their lives might look like.
We might sometimes think of love in terms of risk; I encourage us to think of our calendars in terms of risk, too. I invite us today to take the risk of putting time for Jesus in our calendars, and also to put time for “these kids” in our calendars. It’s a big risk! For if we spend time with them – Jesus, and “these kids” – we might get to know them. And if we get to know them, chances are we will come to love them. And when we love them, who knows what we might be willing to do for them.