Return on Investment: what profit?
I have heard it said that the source of humor is pain. Perhaps so; this text in Mark made me think of a picture that is universally recognized as funny – but only at first. It the picture of the monkey with his hand in the jar, grabbing a banana, but unable to extract it. It’s funny until you have that second thought: do I do that?
And of course the answer is, “Yes, I do that.” I need for my life to “work” for me. I work hard to try to maximize its pleasures and mitigates its pains. I want the good things in that jar, just like the monkey. When I think I have one of them in my hand I hold tightly.
And yet I am aware that grasping for bananas, self-indulgence, is a short dead-end road. Everything worth having seems to require discipline: education, health, family, relationships, achievement – all of which I want to have working for me in my life, only come by frequently saying no to my own excuses. There is nothing particularly Christian about this common insight – from Confucius to Socrates everybody knows this; you do not become a philosopher-king by sipping lemonade by the pool all day.
But there is something deeper going on here in Mark’s gospel that addresses even deeper human-needs, and we need to hear it. The prize we grasp for in that jar is more profound than lawn-size or number of guest bathrooms. The prize we are after is finding the answers to our most basic questions:
What is the chief good?
What is the meaning of life?
Why are we here?
What is the measure of a life well-lived?
The answer cannot be found in a life simply squandered on self. The answer cannot be that the scale at the end of time is heavier on the side of pleasures than pains – at that point what difference does it make?
In order for life to make any sense at all, there must be a defining center; neither myself nor any self is big enough to be that defining center. Life cannot revolve around myself and have meaning.
We are here today to assert boldly that there is a Center and it is beyond ourselves. That center is God alone. Every time we come together in worship, we are making the declaration that God is God, and we, ourselves, are not. God is the meaning-giving center around which our lives turn.
It is fascinating that in this moment of our national life we are all so transfixed on the economic crisis we are in, and that in this moment, the gospel text uses language borrowed from the lexicon of accounting.
Jesus speaks of profit, of gains and losses – as if he had just heard the business report. But his metrics are not Wall Street’s. Listen to how he frames our deepest questions:
36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Did Bernie Madoff think that $50 billion was a good return? I wonder. But you do not have to be Bernie Madoff to forfeit your life by thinking that exchanging it for something material – at any value – is a good deal. What amount could possibly equal the value of life or make a life have value?
From the Center we gather to affirm, we come to understand that it is not the pursuit of pleasure, but the the embrace of suffering that is at the heart of life’s purpose. Jesus said:
34 “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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.
Two thousand years after Jesus said those words we are nearly unable to hear them as his first audience did. For us, the cross is the symbol of our faith, and therefore, we see it often depicted in ways that emphasize its centrality and significance: it is gold, it is in stained glass, it adorns steeples and is worn as jewelry; all good, all expressive of the cross’s value. But originally, it meant one thing: the most brutal and humiliating way to die, reserved for slaves and especially for revolutionaries.
The condemned had to carry the cross piece through the town en route to their naked crucifixions at public cross-roads, specifically to maximize humiliation as deterrence. Rome had no interest in subtlety. The cross was not the sentence for merely violent criminals, the cross was the sentence for those who would challenge the authority of the Empire.
Are we called to take up that cross piece? Take up that shame? Yes.
We are here to challenge the authority of false empires. We are here to say, contrary to every empire of this world, that life is not about accumulated assets. We are here to say that we understand that to find our lives, we must first loose them. To experience the pleasure of a life of meaning, we first embrace the suffering all around us.
The cross is the ultimate symbol of the one who embraced suffering for us, on our behalf, and invited us to join him in that embrace.
This is a hard lesson: Peter – representing all disciples, as leader – and therefore speaking for us as well, expresses the natural human revulsion at the idea of embracing suffering. He would rather have a real triumphal entry and take on the empire on its own terms: the sword.
32And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
This is not just a human way of thinking: for Jesus, to turn aside from his embrace of the path of suffering would be Satanic:
33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
God’s balance sheet of profit and loss has reversed column headings: the profit column lists sufferings embraced; the loss column is full of meaningless selfishness.
We count hours of lost sleep with a sick child in the middle of the night an asset on that ledger.
We count hours spent helping poor people find rent money and food a worthy investment.
We count money spent on refugees in Darfur a blue chip in the portfolio.
We believe that every embrace of suffering, every casserole taken to a home where loss has occurred or where sickness has come and
every minute spent in prayer for suffering people
is our embrace of suffering as our Lord challenged us.
We do not embrace suffering to earn reward points with God – that is not what this is about. We embrace suffering out of a heart of gratitude for the fact that in Jesus Christ, God embraced our suffering, our pain, our human condition. Our embrace of suffering shows that we have discovered the path to meaning in life – it is not a life lived for the self, but for the suffering people all around us.
What are we Christians? We are disciples.
What does a disciple do? Learn; follow.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Today we will enact our belief in the embrace of the cross – the symbol of suffering – in two ways. We have a new ministry here; several of you have gathered to make prayer shawls. We will dedicate them today to the Lord, to use to bring comfort to people who are suffering. Out of pastoral need I have already given a shawl to a woman who is near the end of her life in this world – she was blessed more than I can say. Our ladies embraced her suffering in their prayers as they knitted the shawl, and continue to pray for her as she wears it until her suffering is over.
Today we will also baptize a new member of the body of Christ, Walter Hubley V. How is baptism connected with suffering? Baptism in the ancient world was performed in bodies of water into which people would wade, and be submerged. The water we use is only a symbolic quantity, so it may be easy to miss the connection, but the original act of submerging and rising up out of the water pictured a burial and resurrection.
The New Testament teaches us to understand that when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his death. Baptism is our first experience of embracing suffering; in baptism we enter into the death of our Lord, on the cross.
In baptism we experience loosing our lives, with Christ. We also experience finding our lives as we are raised with him to “walk in newness of life” as Paul says (Romans 6:4; Col. 2:12).
The purpose of life is not about us. The ultimate good that gives our lives meaning is not in grasping as many goodies in the jar as we can. It is found in letting go of that grasping hand, and using it to reach out to touch people in pain.
This is the life that has purpose; the life that is found, not lost. This is the cross-shaped, or cruciform life. The life with meaning derives its meaning from the center, from God, who sent his son into the world to save us from loosing our lives in ventures that profit nothing, but to find them following him; taking up the cross, and embracing the suffering world.