“I’m living a nightmare!”
It’s a phrase our friends still reference in jest. An ode to simpler times when our life course seemed plausible and controlled, it evokes the horror of Shawn’s college roommate who awoke one morning (probably more like one afternoon) to discover he had slept through his final exam.
Living in our world of uncertainty can sometimes feel like just that. It’s like waking up to find out you missed your exam. Or perhaps worse, that you had failed to study for it in the first place. Not out of irresponsibility, but because you hadn’t even signed up for the course.
Ours is a world confronted by these kinds of questions right now. Namely, those we hadn’t anticipated. The idea of a pandemic was precisely that: a static notion that resided in history textbooks. The questions surrounding race in our nation are somehow, sadly, more expected and yet just as jarring. How do we move forward in all of this? How do we all live a life of fullness during this time?
Sometimes my answer is simply, “I don’t know.”
While many of us grapple with the blindness of tomorrow, today’s Gospel is asking us to give. Amid the great sacrifice of our healthcare system and the systemic suffering of people of color, Jesus calls us to confrontation and action. Take up your cross. Follow after him. For “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Precisely at a time when some may instinctively feel like putting themselves first, we are told that discipleship demands more. For us, the answer to Christ’s invitation is Love itself. And it is never answered alone.
I recently began rereading texts from a course I took in graduate school called Improvising Peace. We were assigned a book series from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, the first entitled Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, written by Fr. Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice.
Toward the end of the book, there is a brief reflection on the Philippians Hymn, a Scripture passage that sings the story of the Incarnation. It reads, “In connection with reconciliation, incarnation means learning to be there in broken places and developing the patience and discipline necessary to stay long enough to see the needs” (120). It goes on to say, “Only when we’re present to the world’s brokenness do we ask what is required to respond to the need. Through incarnation, reconciliation ceases to be spectacular and becomes the purpose of our everyday lives” (121).
We all live in broken places, some of us more so than others. We are also called to develop the patience and discipline described above. This is what I imagine when Jesus asks that our life be God-centered in today’s Gospel, orienting God even before your loved ones. To make a sacrifice in which one dies to oneself is to put on Christ. To act in lock step with the one who first loved us. Not as some kind of soldier, but as the living love of God. It is the fruit of prudent action grounded in prayer. It does not harm the ones we love, but guides us in becoming like Jesus.
I believe we witness this in our first reading as well. In the story from 2 Kings, we encounter this love in the embodiment of hospitality, the movement of gratitude, and a reminder that in God, all things are possible. We are told a “woman of influence” often welcomed the prophet, Elisha, into her home. She and her husband enact the great service of care for another, providing food and housing for “this holy man of God.” In return, Elisha seeks to respond in kind. He demonstrates the gratitude he feels for their hospitality with a promise we have seen before throughout the Old Testament: the gift of a child. This deliverance transitions to the Psalm of David: “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.” In the relationship between Elisha and this family, the goodness of God is found. This itself can be read as a response to the signs of their times.
Our faith is ultimately a story of the gift of self, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation. It is also a story in which we continue to partake. It is already, but not yet. After all, St. Paul was also speaking to us in our second reading when he wrote, “Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” We must listen to these words as though we’re hearing them anew, as if they were penned today.
And so we can be confident that there are answers to these questions we’re facing. Indeed, we must be a part of them. We may not be enrolled, but we know where to start to look.