November 24, 2019
The Feast of the Reign of Christ
A few months ago I had talked with Deborah about signing up to preach again, so I started looking through the lectionary for this fall. The first scripture I looked at was interesting, but nothing immediately came to mind. Same with the second. I got to the third, and my reaction was, “Nope! No siree. Nopity NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE.” So I moved on to the fourth and fifth. Nothing resonated. Finally the Holy Spirit nudged, You might as well stop wasting your time and turn back to reading number three because clearly we’ve got some work to do.
What was it that so agitated me in today’s gospel? Two words: “Save yourself.” They show up three times in this scripture, and all three times they are put in the mouths of people who, if not exactly enemies of Jesus, certainly aren’t the heroes of the scene: the mocking rulers, sneering soldiers, and of course, the criminal hanging beside him.
Yet I found myself in their company when I read this passage. “Save yourself, Jesus.” Those were my words, too.
After all, what’s so awful about asking Jesus to save himself? Surely some of his friends, disciples, and family members must have been thinking the same? Setting aside some very heavy theological questions about the reason for and meaning of Jesus’s death, surely it’s fair for his followers to be concerned: will a Messiah who wouldn’t save himself… save me? If Christ did not not spare himself the worst, does he expect me to the same?
These questions felt incredibly relevant in the context of the year I’d had. During five years of living in Haiti, I had felt safe and loved my community despite the inevitable ups and downs – the literal ups and downs of, among other things, electrical current, the volume of music coming from the church across the street, and even the ground itself. It was hard and amazing and beautiful and challenging. It was never boring.
But by early 2019, political and economic conditions had deteriorated, throwing the country into a crisis. For the first time in five years, I found myself homesick and churchsick. I was exhausted, my anxiety skyrocketing when day after day, mass protests and an increasing atmosphere of lawlessness made it unsafe to leave home. The one time I went out, I was robbed – and while I was not physically harmed and had little money on me, the thief did strip me of my phone, which compounded my anxiety and isolation.
I was becoming a version of myself that I no longer recognized. This version was a ball of nerves. This version could hardly pull my thoughts away from my own anxiety long enough to have empathy for others. This version could be set off by the slightest obstacle or hiccup – and in Haiti there are a lot of hiccups. I felt like I was falling. I needed out.
But there was a problem, and that problem was Jesus. Jesus has an annoying habit of saying things like “Whoever tries to save her life will lose it” and “Pick up your cross and follow me.” Ultimately he modeled this self-sacrifice for us by refusing to save himself from crucifixion. So wasn’t this suffering what God had called me to? Shouldn’t I be bearing my cross and, like today’s Epistle says be, “prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God”? Shouldn’t I be ready to give my very life, the way Jesus did?
Spoiler alert: I was not. Instead, I all but fled the country for a few weeks of respite – leaving home just after dawn to get to the airport before barricades and road blocks were built up again for the day. Though the streets were empty at the time, something in me felt like I was running for my life.
When I sat in Seekers the following Sunday, we were ending the service when the Holy Spirit whispered, You should probably find some time to talk to Marjory. When we sat down a few days later, I tried through tears to explain: I believed God had called me to Haiti. Haiti now felt like it was killing me. Jesus said this was the kind of thing I should expect. So the only logical conclusion is that I need to suck it up, right?
And Marjory sat there and listened and then was like, ORRRRR…. Have you considered whether God calling you to a new a chapter? Is it possible that the loss of community and the grief that you were experiencing even before this crisis were signs of a change in where God was calling?
Well, I could not have been more relieved. My decision was made the second those words came out of her mouth. Two weeks later I returned to a temporarily calmer Haiti and shared my decision to move back to DC with friends and co-workers. While I shed more than a few tears about leaving, I didn’t have any doubt about going.
On Easter morning, just days before I was to leave, I learned that a friendly acquaintance had died the day before. An American woman – she had died of an asthma attack, died the kind of stupid, senseless, preventable death that happens all the time in impoverished places like Haiti. I was stricken. And selfishly, I thought: there could not be a clearer sign that I need to get out of here NOW. Again I had the feeling that I was running for my life.
When I landed at National airport with all of my suitcases a few days later, I felt saved. Never once since the moment I made the decision did I have any second thoughts. The improvement in my mental and physical state alone made it clear that it was the healthy choice. The right thing.
I guess I didn’t fully buy it. In therapy I wrestled with the ongoing struggle of judging myself for the decision to leave, even though rationally I could see it the necessary move. When I went back to Haiti for my first quarterly visit at the end of July, I ran myself ragged, trying through insane 14-hour days to atone for leaving.
So you can imagine that when I read this passage, all I could see was Jesus’s refusal to save himself. It was a pointed rebuke, a spotlight shining on my failure as his follower. I saved myself, and that is NOT what Jesus would do.
Or… is it?
As it turns out, once I committed myself to wrestling with this passage, I prayed through how angry and defensive it made me. And that’s when the Holy Spirit said, You ding-dong (ok, the Holy Spirit did not call me a ding-dong, but I sure felt like one), Jesus saved himself and his disciples plenty of times.
Luke 4:28-30: Jesus’ words enrage the crowd, and then he somehow slips away and walks out right through the angry masses.
Luke 8:24: Jesus calms the storm threatening to capsize the boat carrying him and his disciples.
Matthew 4:12: Jesus withdraws from the region after John is imprisoned.
Mark 3:6-7: Jesus leaves the region when Pharisees start plotting to kill him.
John 7:30 and John 10: 39-40: Jesus eludes more angry crowds
John 11:54: Jesus leaves the region when authorities are looking to seize him.
That doesn’t even count Matthew 2 with his family’s flight to Egypt when Jesus was a child.
When I looked at all of these examples, what Marjory had said to me back in February finally became painfully obvious: the suffering is not the point. The suffering is not the point. The call is the point. Following God’s call on our lives may certainly entail suffering and danger, but the call is not to those things. The fact that I am suffering is not proof that I’m still following God’s call; it’s only proof that I’m living in a world where suffering abounds. After all, if we all martyr ourselves at the first opportunity, God’s work isn’t going to progress very far. If Jesus had stuck around trying to persuade some of those angry crowds, what might have happened in that moment? What might have happened to the rest of his ministry?
So, this leads us to an important question:
How do we know the difference between the times when God is telling us we’d better cut and run, and the times when we’re called to keep carrying the cross – even if it’s going to end in our own crucifixion?
I have no real answers. Honestly, the loss of community and the grief that Marjory told me could be signs of a change in my call don’t seem all that different to what Jesus was experiencing in Gethsemane when God was apparently telling him that he was going to have to stay the course. When I looked at that versus all of those examples of Jesus saving himself, there was no obvious sign that differentiated: this an angry crowd to disappear from, this is an angry crowd to let arrest you.
In the absence of a clear rule (and boy, would I love a clear rule), I guess that leaves the Holy Spirit to give us wayposts, and wise guides like Marjory who can help us make sense when those signs seem to be pointing every which way. We can ask ourselves the question: What is the work for me now? Is the suffering necessary to or extraneous to that work? In my case, God has not called me to different work – but God has also made it clear that I’m able to continue working for SOIL and standing in solidarity with Haiti from here. Not only have I been more productive in my work from a distance, I also have the ability to extend myself towards others in new ways – supporting a recently arrived refugee, helping a friend move, getting involved in the life of this church – that I simply lacked the energy and emotional resources to do before.
In closing, I want to take a moment, and just ask, is there somewhere in your life where it’s time save yourself? Is there suffering that is incidental to your call, suffering that you are trying to muddle on through just because, you know, that’s what Good Christians Do? If there is, let me tell you that Holy Spirit is here to liberate you from that garbage.
Or is there something that you are suffering because there’s simply no way around it to continue down the way that God has called you? If there is, I pray that the Holy Spirit would give you courage and hope and strength to carry on.
And may the Spirit give us, in the words of the serenity prayer, “the wisdom to know the difference.” AMEN.