I took a popular two-quarter economics course at the University of Chicago, and I’m proud to say I did very poorly in it. In fact, I think I got a C in the second quarter, which is actually an F when, like economists judging the impact of policies and investments over time, you adjust the grade for inflation. This course was designed for the non-economists at the U of C, and was taught in a perpetual state of disbelief that anybody wasn’t an economist. Among the things I learned: economists should listen to every other economist unless they’re from Princeton or MIT, in which case they should be ignored; if you want to waste land you should use it for a sports arena or a cemetery; morals actually get in the way of helping people, but lowering the minimum wage does not; even economics professors who think morals are just zits waiting to be popped will offer money and food to students who had an apartment fire and lost most of their stuff. I also learned that threatening people with hell doesn’t work; there’s something called future discounting or something, in which people will look at the life before them and the eternity awaiting them and choose whatever fulfills the present, rather than the eternity some time far away. Let that be a lesson to all the Chick-pamphlet distributors.
But my prophylaxis is not immunity. Not in the least. Every time I come upon this gospel reading I feel as if I have drunk a cocktail made of equal parts shame, despair, and yearning. “If any want to call themselves my disciples, 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?” I often wonder if I have picked up my cross to follow Christ—I wonder if I even know what that cross is. I am ashamed that I cannot admit, like Paul did to the early church, that I bear the marks of Christ upon my body. Do I bear them on my soul? I despair of knowing what Christ asks of me. Have I denied myself? Have I lost my life for Jesus' sake? Or have I, despite any of my efforts, remained selfish, scared, maximizing my utility, placing my faith in the markets and in money and the security of my social location? My prophylaxis seems to have awakened me to the knowledge that I have a self to lose, that I need to lose it for a life beyond what I can imagine. Maybe you have tasted this same cocktail when you hear these words of Jesus. Or, possibly, you don’t even know what Jesus means by them.
Peter, clearly, didn’t track what Jesus was saying—the translation “God forbid it, Lord!” really ought to be something like, “God is gracious to you,” a plea based on the lovingkindness of God for God’s people. You don’t have to die, Peter says. You must not suffer shame—you must not suffer at all. But in his words, we hear the serpent in the garden, who through a silky and attractive argument stole Adam and Eve from paradise. God’s lovingkindness is not proved by the absence of suffering but by God’s full embrace of it and God’s overcoming it, sanctifying it. This is important because it means that our experiences, our choices, our lives matter. God honors our struggle by struggling, by dying. God touches our shame by being shamed on the cross; God inhabits our despair when Jesus cries out to God, "Why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus had listened to Peter, he would not have honored us in that shame. Instead we would worship an absent God, a God removed from our own struggle and sacrifice and pain. But if God’s only begotten son loses his life to give life, well, what does God expect of us? This reading from Matthew ends on an ominous note: "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” Remember also, the Scripture Paul quotes: Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. And our Creeds affirm this, too. Shortly we will confess that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, and I confess that I do not rest easy when I think about that. God is present with us in life, constantly directing us to the wounds of sin, ever bringing us to the places where we can heal and help. But to do this means we have to give up our own complicity in the evil of the world, even when that complicity feels good.
Jesus does not mean to make us comfortable. It would be a sad, sad faith if all that Jesus were to say to us is, “Keep doing what everyone else is doing. Make a buck. Have some fun. God loves you.” I believe we hear that—we hear Christianity as reinforcement for American culture and the American way. This is pernicious in every manner it comes our way, whether it is a group of so-called evangelicals praying like trained monkeys every time the President wants a photo op of piety, or whether it’s well-meaning affirmation of youth and young adults when we tell them God loves them just as they are. We ought to pray for our nation and its leaders, and God does love every single one of us just we are. But the day will come when Christ returns with all his angels in the glory of the Father and no nation will remain. America will not swallow up the world, but rather will be ended. And of all these people that God loves, Christ will ask: How did that love change you? What did you do?
I read someplace that Hurricane Harvey was a 1 in 40,000-year storm. It will cost an estimated $190 billion to recover from it. A heat wave that has never been seen has crushed California—triple digits in the Bay Area, which is usually either coming or going to foggy and chilly. Just like Superstorm Sandy here, climate change has juiced these heat waves and hurricanes, making them far more dangerous than they would otherwise be. I drove to the mall on Saturday and put thousands of miles on my car, and I plan to fly to Florida in November. I do not think any of those decisions will escape the Word that was at the beginning with God and spoke all things into being. But I do know that everyone who calls himself a disciple of Christ must hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor and ask if he is crying out, or if he is shutting his ears to the cry. The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are the same cry—and under their cry is the cry of God.
Every call of Christ leads to death. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about Jesus's stark claim on us. Kierkegaard said that what lies beyond this call is unthinkable, unimaginable, and that’s why it takes faith to step out into discipleship. All our philosophies and sciences, our social science theories and our algorithms, our mathematical models and our poetry, cannot say what that life is. Only in the living of the way of Jesus does the life of discipleship become clear. There are days when I wish I could come to this pulpit and say exactly what it means to follow Christ, but of course it is different for each of us, and there are days when I don't know how to begin to say it. All I can say today is that I’m dying to find out, and I hope we all are. Christ calls us to that. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack