For several years after college I worked for an international development and relief organization. We provided medical supplies and expatriate staff for hospitals in 80 or so of the economically-poorest countries of the world. My work was in personnel, which included preparing and orienting our medical workers for what they would encounter in their host culture. We always told them in great detail the worst they would likely experience: the extremes of the weather, the meager diet, the primitive sanitary conditions, the political tensions with the host government, the competition among various religious and political groups in their area, the lack of privacy, the prospect of their becoming sick, the homesickness and loneliness they would feel, the possible strains on their family, the desperate need for their work… and the haunting guilt they would probably feel being such privileged people in the face of such great poverty.
We told our expatriate personnel the worst they would likely experience for two reasons. For one, we didn’t need to tell them much about how good their foreign experience would likely be. Drawing on their imagination, their sense of adventure, romance, virtue, dedication, heroism, altruism, faithfulness, they already had a lot of good images of what their foreign experience might be. We didn’t need to tell them about that. Rather, we especially told them how difficult their foreign assignment would likely be because that’s what worked. We relied on extensive research undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development and from field research done by the United Nations. These studies showed conclusively that people facing adverse situations are much more prone to find fulfillment, satisfaction, good mental and physical health, stamina, and be retained for extended service if they were prepared for the worst they could possibly face, rather than for the best. We braced our personnel for every worst-case scenario. Jesus is doing the same in the Gospel lesson appointed for today: preparing his followers for some worst-case scenarios that would inevitably befall them.
Jesus did not need to tell them more about the good news. The hungry were being fed, the blind being given sight, the lame were made to walk, the poor were given hope and help. But at this point, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where he knew he would die on a cross. Jesus here is making a prediction for his followers of the suffering that inevitably awaited them. And Jesus’ prediction came true, not only for himself, but for virtually all the inner-ring of his disciples, and then for generations of his followers for the first 300 years following his death and resurrection. Followers of Jesus faced the most appalling persecution under the Roman Empire, then down through the centuries into the present time.
For those of us who hear these words of Jesus when we are not experiencing suffering for being a follower of Jesus, he’s preparing us, he’s giving us words of prediction. For those who hear these words of Jesus in times of persecution, those who today know the acute cost of discipleship – Christians who now live in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Burma, Vietnam, China, Kenya, the Sudan – these words of Jesus will be words of comfort, of blessed assurance.
When Jesus speaks these words we’ve read in today’s Gospel lesson, he’s giving a “heads up.” Followers of Jesus are not spared the cross but shared the cross, and so we hear him say to us, “…whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I’ll suggest two ways for us to hear Jesus’ bad news about the good news, about the cost of discipleship:
- We may know of someone just now who is in great suffering. They may be suffering from a physical or mental illness, they may be mourning because of the loss of a loved one, or the loss of living wage, or the loss of a place called home. They may be suffering with an addiction, or because of prejudice and discrimination. They may be suffering because of fear. And we know it. There is some person, or some persons who have already found their way into our heart, and we have been given the stewardship of loving them. We may be able to stand with them or sit beside them, or to extend our hand of help in some way, quite literally. Or some suffering soul whom we carry in our heart may be at a great distance, beyond our reach – maybe someone from our past, or someone whom we have seen in the media, maybe a whole group of people – a village, a region, a nation – and we pray for them, we pour out our heart for them.If you were to ask, will our prayer help them? I would say, “yes, absolutely.” If we are moved to pray for someone, it is God who has already moved us. It is God who has prompted our prayer for them, and somehow we are being drawn into alignment with God’s desires for this person or these people. Something is going on in and through our prayer. If you are moved to pray for someone, you are already an answer to prayer, an answer to God’s prayer, God’s desire for those for whom you pray. God is up to something, and we are being used, you are being used in some mysterious yet real way to mediate God’s presence and provision for this person or these people in need, who live in suffering.
- Secondly, you personally may understand just now what it is to carry the cross of Christ. The cross for you may be a crisis with your own health or the health of someone you love and carry in your heart. The cross for you just now may be about fear or poverty or hopelessness. Something right now is just killing you. And that may well be Jesus’ sharing of the cross with you. I’m not suggesting that you go looking for suffering; I am suggesting that if suffering has found you already – and it is undeniable, and unavoidable, and inescapable – then you are at a place to take Jesus at his word. The cross is Jesus’ way, but it is not Jesus’ end. And it is not your end. Jesus’ promise is that through losing our life we will find our life. Most of us will die many times before we die; something will just kill us. If you know what it is just now to have been handed a cross, take Jesus at his word that he will not leave you comfortless, and that he will provide. We are not left hanging on the cross. If you know something of the cross just now, ask Jesus for help. Pray for help, pray for where help may be found, and look for it with expectant desire. Look for the life that comes out of our own death experience of the cross.
And then, a final word. We hear Jesus asking a rhetorical question at the outset of our gospel lesson, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows…?” Which begs the question: what actually is a sparrow worth? Well, not very much. In Jesus’ day two sparrows were sold for a Roman penny. Two pennies made farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. So a common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. In Jesus’ day, the poorest of the poor brought sparrows to the temple for their offering. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “you are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But he says “sparrows.” “You are of more value than sparrows.” Gee, thanks. Jesus could not have chosen a more common metaphor than “sparrows.”
Hidden in this metaphor, comparing us with the every-day most common, is a word of comfort. When you look at the media reports for today, the thousands and tens-of-thousands, and hundreds-of-thousands of people alive, today, who are living with real suffering, appalling suffering, when you see these multitudes of people pictured in the newspaper or online, people who are nameless to us, so many, and with such monochrome and appalling suffering, they may appear to us like sparrows, one suffering face indistinguishable from the next. They do have value, each one, individually, have value, and worth; they are known and loved eternally by God.* Like sparrows to us, they may seem indistinguishable; to God they are known by name. We should remember that as we look upon the masses of suffering people – how we pray for them and act on their behalf, on behalf of at least some of them. We should also remember this metaphor about the sparrows. Some day we also may feel like one of those sparrows as we face our own suffering. There may be for us, sooner or later, a comforting reminder in this metaphor about the value even of a sparrow, that God knows us by name and sees in us something precious and of eternal value.
Prepare for the worst; anticipate the best.
* We read in the First Epistle of John: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2).
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