5th Sunday of Lent; March 25, 2012
John 12: 20-33; “A Life to Love”
There is a young man, 28, living down in Florida, in a nice little gated community down there. You might have heard of him in the news this week. His name is George Zimmerman, and he is–or at least he was–the captain of the neighborhood watch group. Apparently, he took his neighborhood watch role very seriously. And he’s been particularly concerned recently because some things from the community have gone missing–bikes, grills, outside stuff.
So Zimmerman took it upon himself to patrol the neighborhood every night when he walked his dog. And he took it upon himself to watch out for “suspicious characters” when he was driving through the neighborhood. And he took it upon himself to carry his licensed gun, in case there was any trouble. And he took it upon himself to call the police if he noticed a problem. In fact, Zimmerman has called the police 46 times since January of 2011.
The most recent phone call he made to the police, as far as we know, was regarding a “suspicious young black man” who was walking in the neighborhood and looked like he was “up to no good.” The exact details about what happened next are unclear. The “suspicious young black man, ” Treyvon Martin, was walking back to his dad’s house from the convenience store. Zimmerman got out of his truck to follow him. Martin began to walk faster, maybe even run. And the two men ended up in a physical altercation that ended when Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.
In a case that is shedding an ugly light on our continuing battle with racism in this country, Zimmerman has not been arrested for the murder of Martin. He’s not in jail, though death threats have forced him to leave his home and hide out somewhere else for the time being.
Zimmerman is pleading self-defense. And this whole question of what it means to defend yourself brings to my mind what Jesus says here in John 12: “Those who love their life lose it.”
From the outside, from a moral and legal perspective, the self-defense plea is ridiculous. Zimmerman got out of his truck to follow Martin. Zimmerman had a loaded gun while Martin had a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. It is clear that Martin posed no threat to Zimmerman. It is clear that Zimmerman instigated the incident. It is clear that Zimmerman should be held accountable for the life he has taken. The self-defense plea is ridiculous. It is a travesty of justice that Zimmerman has not been arrested.
I do wonder if, in Zimmerman’s mind, he was defending himself. He was trying to defend himself all 46 times he called the cops. He loved his life of living comfortably in his townhome community, befriending his neighbors, enjoying his family. He loved his life and, in the process of trying to protect that life, he lost it. Even before he killed an innocent teenager, his life was lost in his paranoid, obsessive attempts to save it.
“Those who love their life lose it.” We see it all the time, really. Especially those of us who can’t help but read the tabloid headlines while we wait in line at the grocery store. Celebrities indulging in sex, drugs, lavish lifestyles until their relationships, their bodies, their bank accounts are wrecked.
Corporate bigwigs putting their own paychecks above considerations of fairness, prudence, the environment until there is an oil spill or a bankruptcy or a national financial crisis.
“Those who love their life lose it.” We see it all the time. Especially those of us who can’t help reading a good work of literature now and then. Like Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin, a proper Southern lady, loves her life. As she sits in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she assesses the people around her and considers the different classes of people in her world. Her heart rises when she thinks that Jesus “had not made her [black] or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you!”
Mrs. Turpin is so involved in her own life, so wrapped up in her own view of things, that she continues to exchange cliched and racist and classist “pleasantries” with another proper lady in the waiting room until that woman’s daughter hurls a book a Mrs. Turpin’s head and whispers to her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
The words, more than the book, sting, and later Mrs. Turpin has it out with God while she hoses off her hogs back at her farm: “What do you send me a message like that for? . . . How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
This confrontation with God leads her into “some abysmal life-giving knowledge,” and she has a vision of a swinging bridge connecting earth and heaven. Rumbling across the bridge are “whole companies of white trash,” bands of blacks, “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” At the end of this line are people like herself–people who had “always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” The people like herself are marching in a dignified, orderly manner. They are singing on key. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
“Those who love their life lose it.” Sometimes in big ways, like George Zimmerman and Ruby Turpin; sometimes in small ways.
We love our lives so much that we fill our time with activity after activity until the life we love has practically disappeared into busyness.
We love our lives so much that we lose ourselves to worry–about getting injured or sick, about losing jobs or money or status.
We love our lives so much we nestle in, nestle in with the people who are like us, nestle into comfortable routines, and wall ourselves off from relationships that could be life-giving, from adventures to which God might be calling us.
“Those who love their life lose it,” says Jesus. “And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
This is an odd thing for Jesus to say. To encourage us to hate our life–the life given to us by God; the life Jesus said he came to give in abundance. This odd saying reminds me of another odd thing Jesus says in the gospel of Luke: “If any come to me and do not hate their father and mother, their spouse and children, their brothers and sisters—yes, even their own lives—they cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:26)
In both teachings, it seems clear that Jesus does not use the word “hate” to encourage an active disdain for family members or for our lives. If we are to love our enemies, surely we are not to be antagonistic toward our parents. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, surely we should not actively denigrate and harm ourselves.
Jesus seems to use the term “hate” in these verses to indicate a sense of de-prioritizing. Our seeking after the reign of God should take priority over our obligations to family. Our commitment to following Jesus should take priority over our own personal worldly pursuits.
“Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Maybe you’ve heard of Henri Nouwen. He’s one of my favorite writers–was a priest, psychologist, professor. He began his academic career just down the road at the Menninger Foundation and eventually made it to Harvard by way of the University of Notre Dame and Yale. He traveled all over the world talking to huge crowds about various psychological and spiritual concepts–such as humility. The irony of this was not lost on him.
In a talk he gave back in 1989, Nouwen said, “From the very beginning of my life there have been two voices. One voice saying, ‘Henri, be sure you make it on your own, be sure you can do it yourself, be sure you become an independent person. Be sure that I can be proud of you.’ And, another voice saying ‘Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus, be sure you stay close to the love of God.'”
Nouwen spent a lot of time making it on his own, making the world proud. He spent a lot of energy achieving a high level of success, only to realize, he says, that “I didn’t really feel well. I didn’t really feel peaceful. I didn’t really feel very centered. Actually, I felt lonely. I didn’t know where I belonged. I was pretty good on the stage but not really always that good in my own heart.” So he began praying: “Lord Jesus, let me know where You want me to go and I will follow you. But, please be clear about it. No ambiguous messages!”
Then one Saturday morning a young woman he had never met before rang his doorbell. She had come from Mobile, Alabama to New Haven, Connecticut to bring Nouwen greetings from Jean Vanier–a french man who had founded communities called L’Arche that worked with mentally handicapped people. No message. No request. Just greetings.
Nouwen was confused by this greeting and he soon had to leave to go to work. The woman said, “You go, I’ll stay here.” So he left her in his apartment and came back to a beautiful meal that she had prepared for him. She stayed with him for three days, helping with little things that were needed. And then she left, once again giving greetings from Jean Vanier.
Nouwen took this as a message from God that he should meet Vanier. Three or four years later, Nouwen found himself on a silent retreat with Vanier. At the end of the retreat, when the silence was lifted, Vanier said to Nouwen: “Henri, maybe we, our community of handicapped people, can offer a home to you, can offer a place to you where you are really safe, where you can meet God in a whole new way.”
Nouwen recalls, “It was an incredible experience because he didn’t ask me to be useful; he didn’t ask me to work for handicapped people; he didn’t say he needed another priest; he didn’t say any of these things. He said, ‘Maybe we can offer a home to you.'”
After a few years, Nouwen came to understand Vanier’s invitation as a call from God. He left the university and moved to France. About a year later he joined Daybreak, the L’Arche community in Toronto–where, instead of doing research and giving lectures, he spent his days bathing, dressing, and feeding a severely handicapped young man named Adam.
Nouwen has said that this was a very, very difficult adjustment. That teaching at Harvard and Yale was much easier, in some ways, than caring for Adam–than living at Daybreak. Yet it was with Adam and the others at Daybreak that Nouwen lived in deepest intimacy with other people and with God. It was at Daybreak where Nouwen was not lonely, where he found home.
“Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
We hate our lives, we lose our lives, in different ways. I take comfort in Nouwen’s story because of the pacing. We’re so used to having the examples of Simon Peter and Andrew held up to us. Jesus says, “Come and follow.” They just walk away from their lives and follow Jesus. Great for them. And also great to know it doesn’t always happen like that. It was years from when Nouwen began praying for a message from God to the time he joined Daybreak. A slow process of losing life, a gradual letting go of all of the trappings of ambition and success and self-focus.
Quickly or gradually, sometimes we lose our lives in large, dramatic ways, like Nouwen. Sometimes we lose our lives in smaller ways. More common ways that we might even take for granted.
I think of Dar, who spent this week of his Spring Break in New Orleans working on a stranger’s house.
I think of those of you who make casseroles, who serve at LINK. Giving a bit of food. A bit of time.
I think of parents who invest so much time and energy in their children. And children who care for their parents. And friends and spouses who love through sickness and health, in good times and bad.
I think of this community. Last week Barbara shared concern about her father driving himself to the airport for a trip. When she suggested that someone from his church could take him, he told her that “we don’t do things like that in our church.” And I saw the bewildered look on many faces in this room. Because we do do things like that here. We understand that being part of this community means losing our own lives, just a bit. And together we’ve glimpsed the new life that is found in Christ when we shift our focus away from ourselves.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”