You may have seen this article in the NY Times this week:
In interviews, New Yorkers, even as they leaned into summer activities and visited parks and cafes, shared a common foreboding that looked beyond the virus itself. Schools, the economy, crime, food, shelter, travel and access to family, planning a vacation — nothing feels like a given in these waning days of August.
So, my friends – if you’re feeling some anxiety and foreboding, you’re not alone. I think everyone has a touch of it, or more than a touch. To be more than 5 months into this pandemic and still not really know how much longer it will go on – it’s rough. It still feels like March, only hotter, I said the other day. Things are supposed to shift at the end of the summer, but we’re not sure how, this year. Parents aren’t sure what school supplies their kids need – new shoes, or better Wifi access. People who delayed traveling this summer now aren’t sure whether they should try to make that trip this fall either. The political news gets uglier than it’s ever been, and then, a week later, it gets even uglier still. Jobs continue to disappear and storefronts to go vacant. And now doctors are starting to warn about the double whammy of the flu on top of everything. It’s all good while we can go sit in the park with half of New York, listening to the birds – but there comes a point in every day when the sky clouds over and the uncertainties return. If your misery feels better with a little company, well, you’ve got lots of company.
At first blush, today’s gospel doesn’t make it much better. Just last week, Jesus was giving Peter kudos for his strong, faithful answer to Jesus’ question, who do you say that I am. You’re the Messiah, Peter said. Right! Jesus said. Excellent! But a short few verses later, the mood has gone sour. The Messiah will suffer and be killed, says Jesus. No way! says Peter. Wrong! says Jesus. Get behind me, Satan – you have this whole thing wrong. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
Talk about the clouds coming over the sun. Just when our hopes had raised – he’s going to take care of everything, at last – Jesus dashes them again: this will all be more difficult than you think.
It seems it’s not just about giving the right answer. It’s not just about doing the right thing and following the rules. It’s about giving ourselves up completely to following Jesus. Which implies a certain – let’s say total – lack of control.
Back to that Times article:
Experts said it was vital that people take steps to restore a feeling of control — however minimal — over their daily lives and, to some extent, their future. “We kind of know the lay of the land,” Mr. Kushnick, the psychologist, said. “It’s a matter of whether you’re going to adjust, or not adjust and suffer.”
As my family will tell you, I hate nothing more than a constant, ongoing lack of control. Short-term, it’s fine. I can be a happy passenger going along for the ride; I can be a good patient, following doctor’s orders; but to have the lack of control run on for a while, even a long while…? Like more than a couple of days? Oh no. And that’s what this pandemic has all been about. Ongoing, unrelenting, lack of control.
Jesus says, Follow me by denying yourself and by taking up your cross. Follow me by losing your life. Follow me by letting go. Oh no.
So let’s skip Jesus for a minute and look at Paul – his letter today gives us some much more helpful hints on what to do. Lots of verbs in the imperative tense. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. All kinds of things to do, like a nice set of rules to follow – I think part of us is always looking for rules to follow, or to break. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stand six feet away. Do this and ye shall live. Or don’t do this and be a jerk, but whatever.
But really it’s not so much a list of tasks from Paul, but a description: when you live the life of Jesus, you do these things. When you follow Jesus, you live for the sake of others. You share and love and serve others because that’s what Jesus did for you. You think the way Jesus does – you act as Jesus does – you are Jesus for others. Jesus is the way, the way you live. That’s what the church does and is.
You want to follow me? says Jesus – deny yourself and take up your cross. Love your neighbor. You don’t do this by pulling up your bootstraps and asserting control; you don’t accomplish this by making a list and checking things off as you go, tallying your good deeds for the day. You do this by letting go, bit by bit by bit; by listening a little more quietly and carefully; by letting God seep in.
Sure, it’s partly done by working on your behavior – by training yourself and acting ‘as if,’ as the writer C.S. Lewis put it…acting as if you’re more loving and more selfless than you really feel, consciously reminding yourself to think of the other person and how it feels to be them before you act to get your own way. It doesn’t happen magically – it does take work. And it’s not without suffering, because all that goes against the grain, in us and around us. We want things the way we want them. It’s harder to think about what others want and need. That’s where the cross comes in.
But it’s also about what happens inside of us: slowly relinquishing control over your life and your direction and allowing God to lead. Waiting on God’s timing rather than insisting on yours. Letting go of cherished hopes and desires instead of raging when they aren’t fulfilled. Asking always where God is calling us next, and whom God is calling us to love. And realizing that more and more, this transformation is happening on God’s initiative, not on ours.
How much longer do we have to live the way we’re living now? No one knows. Will it be this way forever? No. But can you put it on your calendar when it will change? Nope. You can either adjust to that, or not, as the psychologist says. But living in this time as followers of Jesus, it’s a good time to practice letting go, putting love for others ahead of concern for our own needs and wants. Taking that anger over our lack of control and offering it up to God. Because, as we well know, we never really had control anyway.
The gift is, that as we follow Jesus, we find ourselves letting go – even having already let go. It simply begins to matter less that we have our own way. It matters less that we do things the way we always used to. And it matters more to reach out, to love others as Christ loves us. God transforms us, bit by bit, into people who love and follow without worrying about the cost. If you want to become followers of Jesus, let go. Love, and let love be who you are. God is here, even now – with us always. Amen.