Lent 2 B: The Theory of Everything

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Yes, I have the Academy Awards on my mind. Actually, I only watched a bit of the program this past Sunday evening and have not seen all the contenders for best film yet. But of the various moments of the show I did catch, one helped me articulate what I think is the heart of not just this week’s passage but the whole of the Gospel. It was the song “Glory” from Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, and what struck me was how the song writers John Legend and Common described the march to Selma in the terms of glory.

Think about that for a moment. That march, along with the larger struggle for civil rights, was filled with confrontation and suffering and sacrifice. And yet they sing of glory. Why? Precisely because we find glory – and for that matter power and strength and security – only in those moments when we surrender our claims to power and strength and security and glory in order to serve others.

We know this. You and I and our people – we all know this. Because each and every time we make ourselves vulnerable to the needs of those around us, each time we give ourselves in love to another, each time we get out of our own way and seek not what we want but what the world needs, we come alive, we are uplifted, we experience the glory of God made manifest. That’s what Jesus means when he invites his disciples – then and now – to take up their cross and follow him because only those who are willing to lose their life out of love will save it.

Here I should be clear. I’m not taking about – and I’m quite confident Jesus isn’t talking about – a kind of doormat theology where we are to ignore our genuine human needs altogether or see ourselves as not deserving of love, dignity, and respect. And so there is no justification here for enduring abusive relationships or tolerating injustice. Rather, I’m talking about giving of ourselves in love – which is of course quite different than having others take from us. And that giving in love almost always includes sacrifice, denying ourselves and our immediate gratification so as to meet another’s needs.

Again, we know this is true. We do it perhaps most naturally as parents, sacrificing all kinds of things in the hope of providing for our children. But we also do it as children, friends, partners, neighbors and more. And each time we do so – each time, that is, we call into question a momentary “want” of our own in order to satisfy a genuine need of someone else, we experience a kind of glory. We know this.

But I think it’s hard to believe, or at least hard to hold onto. So much in our culture is designed to make us think that the only thing that matters – and the only thing that will bring us peace, security, and happiness – is looking out for ourselves by gratifying our immediate desires, whatever they may be. This is particularly true in the world of advertising, where so much time, energy, creativity and money is poured into adds that seek to make us feel inadequate in order to induce us to buy something that promises to make us feel better about ourselves.

But here’s the thing: those commercials are a lie.

Not that there aren’t lots of great things out there to buy and enjoy. But not one of them will actually make us feel complete, or more human, or more adequate, or more accepted or loved. They just won’t. The only thing that does that is connection to others and the community those connections bring.

And connecting to others in order to fashion and nurture community requires sacrifice. There’s just no getting around it. And the marvelous thing is that when we stop worrying about gratifying our wants and instead look to the needs around us, and others begin to do the same, we find more than we’d ever imagined – more life, more joy, more happiness, more acceptance – because we find a whole community looking out for us instead of only ourselves, just as we are looking out for the community of persons around us.

This, I think, is the Gospel’s theory of everything – that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we seek to be a friend, the more friends we discover; and the move we love, the more we are loved.

We know this, I am sure. But we forget. More, we are induced to not believe it. And so Jesus comes and doesn’t just say these words, he also lives them, giving himself out of love for all people and creating a reservoir of life, love, and glory that far surpasses anything the world can offer.

It’s not what his disciples expect. They, too, are children of the world. And although they weren’t bombarded with 5000 advertising images each day as we are, yet they still imagined that the secret to life was strength and power rather than vulnerability and love. And so they interpreted Jesus’ miraculous acts as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love. And when Jesus describes the greatest act of love – giving his life for them and the world – they can only object.

But Jesus will not be deterred. He will continue on the path of sacrificial love – and continue to love his disciples even when they misunderstand him or choose not to follow that path – until the very end. And at the end, God takes what looks like weakness and demonstrates strength and transforms what looks like disgrace and reveals God’s surprising, even unsettling, but ultimately life-giving glory.

We know this. But it’s hard to hold on to. So perhaps this week you can invite your people to call to mind an example of when, in the previous week, they experienced the strange kind of glory that comes from sacrificial love. Perhaps it was stopping to help someone in need, perhaps it was making a donation to a charitable cause, perhaps it was standing up for someone being picked on at school or in work, perhaps it was delaying some gratification in order to tend to another person’s need, perhaps it listening to someone, perhaps it was sharing a smile or hug, perhaps it was…. Well, you get the idea. We do these things all the time and each time we do them we experience the life Jesus talks about.

So perhaps the best cure to the amnesia our culture and the world seeks to induce is to invite us to remember and share these moments of unexpected glory. Because as we do, we’re drawn into God’s theory of everything and discover again the truth Jesus shares: “Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

Blessings to you this week, Dear Partner, as you invite your people once more into the peculiar grace and glory of God and give them a foretaste of the feast to come. Thank you. Thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,