Grove Lake Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids
March 1, 2014/Lent 2
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
It’s good to be with you this morning. Over the years I’ve gotten to know some of you, and this morning I hope to become acquainted with even more of you.
Without even knowing all of you, though, I’m going to make a guess about you folks here at Grove Lake Lutheran Church.
I’m guessing that some, perhaps many of you, are survivors.
You have been up against something—raising challenging kids, losing a job, dealing with addiction, being abused, facing cancer, weathering divorce, farming the land, you name it…
You’ve been up against something that could have done you in—but it didn’t. You survived!
And for that, I say: “Hats off to you!” Surviving is good, because life is good!
If you’re a survivor—I thank God for you.
Surviving is good. But as good as surviving is, it’s not the greatest good in the universe.
That’s because tucked inside every survival story there is a seam of danger we dare not ignore.
The danger in hunkering down, getting focused and doing whatever it takes to survive….the thread of danger in that is that we become so focused on ourselves or our little circle, our “tribe,” that we can easily lose sight of others.
It’s just in the nature of the beast. To survive is to pull in, focus on ourselves or our group, and for at least a while to shut out everyone else….so that we allow nothing and no one to distract us from the challenge of surviving.
We may all have survival moments or “episodes” in our lives—I think we do—but we’ll be smart to avoid making “survival” the main theme, the entire story of our lives….because, truth be told, if all we’re about is surviving we could get pretty lonely.
I think this is where Jesus is pointing us in this morning’s gospel lesson when he says: "If any want to become my followers, 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (vv. 34-35)
Jesus’ wisdom flies in the face of human wisdom, the wisdom that says: sometimes you have to buckle down and do whatever it takes to survive, to make it through the day.
Jesus doesn’t specifically use the word “survival” here, but he comes close when he talks about denying ourselves and losing our lives rather than trying to save our lives.
What’s that all about, anyway?
It’s about the thing that’s even bigger and better than surviving. It’s about staying connected with, related to others….being open to God and the whole human family in ways that are simply at odds with focusing all our effort on surviving.
This is the kind of life God has always intended for us and for all people.
We see signs of that in our Old Testament lesson, where Abram and Sarai are promised descendants without number and new names to boot. Abram and Sarai had pretty good lives, just the two of them, but God had much more in store for them—God had the whole world in mind when he called Abram and Sarai to be blessed so that they could be a blessing to all nations of the earth.
We see that in Jesus, the greatest descendant of Abram and Sarai, as well—we see it in Jesus’s life and ministry, his awful death and his awesome resurrection. Jesus lived in a way that showed he knew that personal survival is not the greatest good—not even close!
Karoline Lewis, who teaches at our seminary in St Paul, puts it this way: “To ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ invites us into what the cross can also mean -- not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.”
We also see this openness to the whole human family, this refusal to focus on personal or tribal survival, in the lives and witness of Jesus’ followers down through the ages.
In January my wife Joy and I were privileged to be part of the ELCA Bishops Academy in Germany, as we got in touch with our roots in the life of the German monk Martin Luther and the Reformation he started….and as we traced the development of the Lutheran church over the last five hundred years.
One of the sites we visited was the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. A quarter of a million persons deemed “undesirables” by the Nazis were imprisoned here, and over 50,000 of them died in this stark, barbed-wired concentration camp. Two of the persons who were imprisoned at Buchenwald were German Lutheran pastors and martyrs--Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, into a highly-educated, well-to-do German family. A brilliant child, he was groomed for the life of a university professor of theology.
But then along came Adolf Hitler, his insane pursuit of power, and his maniacal hatred of the Jews and others he deemed “undesirable.” Quickly grasping the danger posed by Hitler’s Nazis, young professor Bonhoeffer knew he could not stare at his shoes and hope the whole situation would go away.
In the 1930s, Dietrich studied in the United States and made friends in England. He considered “sitting out” World War II in a safe place—doing whatever he needed to do to survive.
But instead Bonhoeffer decided that he belonged in his native Germany. He had to bear witness to his Lord Jesus Christ—in bold word and costly deed.
So Bonhoeffer returned home, served as a pastor while participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was arrested and three weeks before the liberation of Germany—was hanged by the Nazis in 1945.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at the tender age of 39, the question came down to this: “Who is Jesus for us?—in this time, in this place?” And the answer that kept haunting Bonhoeffer was this: “He—Jesus—is the man for others.”
It was only a short hop from that answer to what Bonhoeffer knew he needed to do—NOT to survive at all costs….but to be part of a true church for others, in obedience to the Man for others.
My dear friends, this “being for others,” this way of life that gives itself away for others, isn’t just for biblical characters or historical heroes. It’s for all of us who have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the mode of living that our Lord Jesus immerses us in when we go down under the water of baptism and when we confess that Jesus is indeed the only way worth following, the only truth worth confessing, the only life worth living.
This way of life is for us as individuals, and it is for communities of faith like Grove Lake.
In my ministry as synod bishop I interact on a daily basis with all kinds of congregations--233 of them across the 21 counties of our synod.
And many of these congregations are focused, over-focused (!) on their survival.
Which means those congregations are likely NOT to survive!
Here’s where the out of this world “logic” of Jesus words in our text comes to light, right among us. What’s true for us as human beings is just as true for congregations as living members of the Body of Christ. Hang on to life, cling to life, focus all your attention on surviving….and you will die.
Give yourselves away, focus on your neighbors and your world and all the ways God frees you to be connected to them, care for them, share your best with them….that, that is life!
Let me share an impression of Grove Lake Lutheran Church: you may have plenty of survivors in your midst, but as a community of faith you don’t seem overly focused on survival. I think, instead, that Jesus’ gospel logic lives here.
One of the marks of that is your eagerness to engage our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project. I take that to mean that you “get it”—you “get” the fact that faith is the only thing that multiplies as it is divided, shared, passed on….starting with the youngest among us and the young ones who are in each of our own circles of care.
God bless you with sturdy faith in Jesus Christ, the Man for others….whose cross represents God’s fierce commitment to the whole human family….that all might live in Christ’s forgiveness, move forward in Christ’s freedom, and live every day in Christ’s overflowing love.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.