by +

February 24/25, 2018

Second Sunday in Lent

Pr. Ben Adams


Impossible Contradictions


Is anyone else feeling like the dust and death of lent this year are a little too real? I know I felt that way right off the bat as seventeen school children were murdered on Ash Wednesday. Not to mention, in the South Loop, the community there is still reeling from the death of Chicago police commander, Paul Bauer, who was shot and killed just the day before Ash Wednesday. Then this past Tuesday, it hit even closer to home for me personally when Tara and I got the call, early in the morning, that Tara’s Aunt Audrey had died at the age of 73. And finally, this afternoon we will be celebrating the life and love of music of our late sister Joyce Reichardt, who died this past November.

It’s surreal the way death seems to be all around us. It’s one thing to say it and be reminded of it with ashes on our foreheads, it’s quite another to experience such loss first hand.

And amidst all of this death and human tragedy, we come to a gospel text today where Jesus 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.”

It feels like we’re going to the well of the gospel this week for water and coming up with dust. I mean, come on Jesus, can’t we hear something more pastoral and less challenging as we sort out our grief? There’s been so much loss of life, and now we’re supposed to lose ours as well?

This paradox of losing our life in order to gain it is an impossible contradiction but this is also a week where we are once again reminded in Genesis of God’s abundant covenant with Abraham and Sarah that they will be exceedingly fruitful at the ripe old age of 99. Fruitfulness and loss, “these are vast, rich, and complex notions that undergird faith and make possible our deepened comprehension of resurrection.” as scholar Melinda Quivik writes.

It is from these impossible contradictions that God brings life, truth and peace.

But right now the focus of our nation seems to be on how we can save our lives, not lose them. And at the epicenter of that conversation are guns. Are we to ban or control access to guns, or should everyone, especially our teachers, have one to deter each other from using them? That’s not the most nuanced way of framing the debate right now, but you get the point.

So if we are to both engage scripture seriously, and engage in this conversation around guns seriously, what can we take from today’s text to help us approach this issue faithfully? Well let’s look at what Jesus says, he begins with, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Notice that Jesus does not say that if you want to be his follower, you are to take up arms and follow him. Guns and crosses are both instruments of death, but only one of them leads to life. It’s an impossible contradiction, but through the pain, suffering and death of the cross, we receive everlasting life.

Jesus continues, “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.”

Now this is a particularly important line for us today because it is the crux of discipleship and today we are recognizing our Life Together catechumens with a Call to Renewal as they continue their journey towards the affirmation of their baptism at the Easter Vigil. This Life Together process is our discipleship making process, and maybe its too late to ask this year’s participants, but did y’all know that this is what you were getting yourself into when you joined Life Together? Did you know you’d be asked to lose your life? Maybe next year we’ll include that clause in the promotional materials.

For real though. Discipleship is hard, costly and painful, but when the contradiction of difficult, life giving discipleship is held in tension with God’s covenant, we can have faith like Abraham, that God is faithful to God’s covenant even into old age and even beyond the grave. The path of discipleship is foolish if we examine it through a lens of reason and logic, but through the lens of the faith, costly discipleship is the way to hope.

It seems like an impossible contradiction, and when death surrounds and becomes too real, we might begin to lose hope. But then like a child being born from a formerly barren womb, or the sight of an empty tomb, we are reminded of our resurrection hope. A hope that never seems more futile than when we look death square in the eye, but it’s also never closer to us than it is in that dying moment.

It’s an impossible contradiction for us to comprehend. Death ushering in life. But it’s the very foundation upon which our hope of the resurrection rests. And the covenant of the resurrection was made with you in baptism and will continue with you even after your baptismal journey has been completed.

I guess the question for us then becomes what will we cling to in the face of death. We have faith in the impossible contradiction that from death comes life, but when we get so close to death we can feel it, will we cling to our faith or will we cling to what we think will save our own life?

And with all of the senseless gun violence going on in our world, we are struggling with this very question right now. The ultimate truth is that the only instrument of death that will ever lead to life is the cross, and it is because Christ transformed the cross to become an instrument of life.

So let us too beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, transforming what once only brought death into that which cultivates life from the earth. And if Christ can transform the cross to become an instrument of life we too, as disciples, can be transformed to be instruments of life for the sake of the whole world.

This season of lent brings us face to face with death and mortality, but only through death can we experience resurrected life. It is an impossible contradiction, but from such mysterious paradox God brings life, truth and peace, and out of that our resurrection hope is restored. Amen.

(Image Credit: Tree of Life apse from St. Clement Church, Chicago: