My childhood home was on an island in the Niagara River. By stepping a few feet away from our house, I could see the mist generated by the American and the Canadian Falls. A few feet further took me into a state park with meandering wooded trails that were great to explore by foot or bicycle. My bike was of the stingray variety. It had a banana seat and swooping handlebars. I rode all over the island on that bike, but mostly I liked ramming around the park trails with my best friend, Jeff. One day, we followed what looked like a path but soon took us deep into the tangled undergrowth of the woods. We thought about turning back, but we were sure we could find another trail along the river if we just kept forging ahead. After an hour or so, knowing that we would be late for dinner and in trouble at our homes, we abandoned the bicycles that were getting caught in vines and branches and slowing us down. When we emerged from the forest, we agreed to come back the next day and find our bikes.
That didn’t work out so well! We quickly got lost the next day and worried that we would never see our bicycles again. Our parents would be furious. The day after that, we recruited our friend Jack, a successful Boy Scout. He had a merit badge in tracking animals through the woods. He followed our bicycle tracks through the mud. He cut through the vines with his deluxe Scout knife. Soon we were riding our bikes back home, popping wheelies along the way, determined never to tell our parents how we had lost our most valuable possessions of childhood. If you participate in the bicycle blessing today, we will hope that the blessing covers loss and theft!
“I once was lost, but now am found,” says the hymn. And Jesus says in Matthew 10 that those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Talk about confusing and counter-intuitive. It makes complete sense that you have to lose something in order to find. That’s a truism. But what does it mean that if you find your life, you will lose it?
The rambling passage from the Gospel of Matthew is hard to follow, and whatever efforts made by the writer to create cohesion seem to have failed. Think about it, though: the entire earthly ministry of Jesus, including countless sermons and personal conversations are condensed into twenty-eight short chapters. The particular early Christian community that we know about from this gospel must have struggled to edit the shreds of information acquired though first and second hand accounts in a way that made sense. Mostly it does, but just in this one passage we read about teachers, slaves, Beelzebul, sparrows, swords, mothers-in-law, and picking up a cross to follow Jesus. And then the odd matter of finding and losing.
There is a robin who recently built her nest high atop the pergola that shelters the back patio of our home. We’ve become familiar with her and have established an uneasy truce where we are as quiet and cautious as we can be when she is in her nest just outside our door. We set up a birdbath along the fence and watched for weeks as she gradually became accustomed to and trusting of this new water source. We’ve observed her sitting for hours on what we have assumed to be eggs and have looked forward to their eager mouths being fed worms by their attentive mother. But then a few days ago, the robin disappeared. We have no idea what happened to her and whether there were ever eggs in that nest. We keep watching for the bird and hoping she will return. Jesus said that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowing it and caring. And you matter more to God than many sparrows. So the matter of finding and keeping or losing life must be important.
I’m not too keen on some of what Jesus says here, though I’m familiar with the explanations and alternate ways to read the text that make his words seem less troubling. He makes it abundantly clear when talking about relationships between parents and their children that he is not a family values preacher. He seems to go over top when he says “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Luke’s version of this is even more disturbing: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife, and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself cannot be my disciple.” This is one of those places where those who insist on taking the Bible literally say “but Jesus didn’t mean that literally.” I’m not sure exactly what he did mean, or what those who recorded these words meant, but it’s clear that Jesus is demanding a kind of loyalty that many who heard him were not willing to give.
The words attributed to Jesus here start with him saying that he’s come to set a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter in-law against her mother-in-law. He says that our enemies will be members of our own family. If following Jesus was anywhere near as controversial and divisive as blind loyalty to our current president, I can see why he would make that prediction. That doesn’t make it any less tragic when families are divided by differences of belief, whether that is political affiliation or religious dogma.
In the last church I served, a woman I cared about deeply shared the heartache of being alienated from a son she loved. Nothing she had done to initiate reconciliation had worked, and she and other family members were baffled by the resistance of the son, fortified by his spouse. Shortly after I left to come here, the woman had a heart attack and died a few days later. Her son shared with everyone afterward the wonderful news that he had been reconciled with his mother during the hours before she slipped from consciousness. I was more sad than happy at that news and wondered why it took imminent death to start a hard but needed conversation after so many years of pain. Jesus implies in Matthew 10 that family members will be set against one another for a just cause. But is the price worth it, and how can we tell the difference between righteousness and stubbornness and a false certainly about what God wants from us? I often hear stories of Christian parents who rejects their gay kids, often with the encouragement of clergy. When I read this passage, I can’t help but wonder how many people imagine that the words of Jesus affirm how they have handled a relationship, rather than considering that their actions have been wrong and unnecessary.
While I struggle with the helpfulness of Jesus’ words about bringing a sword rather than peace, I don’t want to minimize the reality that standing for justice often creates turmoil no matter how much we want to keep the peace. And so this week when some are placing party unity as the highest value in voting on a health care plan that targets the poorest and benefits the richest, I think keeping the peace is of relatively little importance. If you believe that justice is not being done in Washington, don’t hesitate to resist and agitate and aggravate those in power.
Jesus’ words here seem prophetic in light of what we hear continually on the news. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered.” “Nothing secret will not be made known.” “What is whispered will be proclaimed from the housetops.” Whether there are tapes or no tapes of those secrets and whispered words, they will eventually be made known. That is true for all of us. What is our deepest truth? Is it secret, and if so, why? Is it something undealt with that will ruin us? Is it something we are ashamed of?
Many times, people believe that hiding the truth from others will make their lives better; that others will love them more or that there will be more opportunity if they guard their truth carefully. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said that those who try to find their life will lose it. Creating a false life, however we do it, will likely end in a bad way.
Yesterday morning I woke to find that my daughter in New York created a video that she posted online. In it, she told the story of her struggle with schizoaffective disorder which manifests itself in ways similar to both schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. She decided to share that information publicly during mental health awareness month, believing that secrecy is part of what has made her experience difficult. She also talked about the stigma attached to mental illness and said that she wants to help reduce that by telling her story and encouraging others to do the same. I hope her life will be a little easier as a result of the decision to be open about her illness, and that she will in essence find her life, as Jesus said. I’ve shared here about my brother with schizophrenia and another who had bi-polar disorder, but I have not talked specifically about my daughter’s struggle because it was her story to share, not mine. Now it is in the open, and in some way is a relief to feel like I am not keeping a secret as well.
Something about Matthew 10 that should be acknowledged is that Jesus mentions the submission of slaves to masters as though it is just a fact of life and not something to be resisted and dismantled. This passage was used by American Christians in the nineteenth century to support the institution of slavery. I’m reading a book right now titled “Never Caught” about George and Martha Washington’s slave Ona Judge. Ona Judge ran away and was pursued relentlessly by the Washingtons. She took an enormous risk to escape, but the reward was that she lived a free and fulfilled life in New Hampshire as a result. She risked losing her life, but in the end she found her life, as Jesus said.
Where does the Scripture speak to you today? Are you finding your life in meaningful ways, even if it means losing something that has held you back? God’s desire for us is always freedom from fear, even fear of the unknown. Don’t risk missing out on life in the attempt to hold it too closely. Amen.