What is your life worth? How do we begin to calculate that figure? In our society, when we talk about what someone is worth—“he’s worth a million,” you might hear–technically meaning, I presume, that if he should die, what would remain of his existence would be a million dollars in the bank. But philosophically, does this mean that his life is more precious than someone who has minus $45 in her bank account from time to time? Does the fact that a magazine would pay millions of dollars to take pictures of a movie star’s baby make that baby worth more than one born in a refugee camp to a woman whose name no one knows? Who decides the worth of a life?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks, “What will it profit a person if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” What would you give in return for your life? Some people think it is noble to consider oneself worth nothing at all (and, alas, there is no shortage of clergy types who will reinforce this). “Oh no, my opinion doesn’t matter. You do whatever you think is best.” Or, “Oh, it doesn’t make any difference what happens to me, just as long as they are happy.” Or some variation on that theme. At its worst, this kind of “you are more important than I am thinking” results in their enduring verbal, mental, or physical abuse because they don’t see themselves as people worthy of the respect or dignity that others are entitled to. Every day in this country, more than 700 women are assaulted by a boyfriend or spouse. Children and elders are violently abused by someone who claims to love them. How do we calculate their worth? How do we calculate the worth of the lives of their abusers?
Does speaking of ourselves as unimportant, valuable only for what we can contribute to others, make us more holy? Or does it deny that we, too, are made in the image of God, and therefore we really do matter? Does it matter what other people say about what we are worth? Is this what Jesus means when he suggests that those who want to follow him should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him? Is this what he means when he says those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus sake will find it? Does Jesus mean that we should consider ourselves worthless in order to discover our worth?
Think back. Think back on all the stories that you have heard about God. Think back to God kneeling over a lump of clay and breathing into it, calling into being a life that had never been before and would never be, in quite the same way, ever again. Think back to the Israelites in the desert, and of God leading them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, sending them manna and quail when they were hungry, and providing water from a rock when they were thirsty. Think back to Abraham being restrained from killing his son Isaac by God providing a ram in the bushes. Think back to barren women praying for the gift of children, or widows calling for justice, whose cries are heard. Think back to princes and prophets who didn’t do or say what God had in mind, and God still rescuing them from the belly of the whale or the sword of their enemies or the terrors of the night.
Now think of Jesus. Think of his hanging around every day with Peter, a man always more eager to please than he was bright. Think of Jesus opting to spend time with James and John, brothers who were forever squabbling about who was more important. Or of Jesus choosing to have lunch with Judas, who, as far as we know, Jesus never stopped loving. Think of Jesus hanging out with that bunch of losers instead of choosing a whole new crop of followers after a few initial disappointments. Think of Jesus looking out over the crowd taunting him as he died and praying not that God would strike them down, but that God would forgive them. Does that sound like a God who wants people to feel worthless?
Or does it sound like a God who wants the world to know that we are worth everything? My friend Marcia wrote a paper for a class in seminary in which the concluding line read, “I’ve learned it’s not all about me.” Our professor wrote in the margins beside that comment, “But Marcia, it IS all about you. And it’s all about everybody else.”
Everything we know about God shows us that we are worth God’s blood, sweat, and tears. We are worth living with and dying for. We are worth every risk and every heartache God ever endured on our behalf. We are worth God’s continuing to reach out to through word and sacrament, through human companionship and through every possible means of grace. When I think of the stories of grace that I know from the Bible, and stories of grace I know from my own messy history, I am awed by how much our lives are worth.
As Marianne Williamson puts it, “Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are we not to be? You are a child of God: Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Recognizing our worth is acknowledging God’s ingenuity and creativity in making us. It is humbly realizing that God has crafted us with free will, capable of making choices about the kind of life we will live, even though we aren’t always wise or kind. God has presented us with the intelligence and opportunity to be co-creators in this universe of ours. But as you well know, having our own thoughts and our own choices often gets us and the rest of God’s world into trouble.
Take, for example, our dear brother Peter in today’s Gospel lesson. I think as a general rule, we can pretty much always look to Peter for an illustration of taking a good thing just a little too far and then falling off the end. Jesus tells the disciples that he expects to be tormented by significant leaders and then killed. And Peter is horrified. Like any good friend, Peter is protective; he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer. And I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus doesn’t want to suffer either. I think that is why he rebukes Peter when Peter says God would forbid such a thing. That is not in his power to know. When Peter (or any of us) claim knowledge of God’s mind we are on the verge of blasphemy, or at least idiocy. Jesus says, “You can’t imagine what God wants. And I know you may want me to believe that God won’t let me get hurt, but that is a temptation to me to avoid the life to which I am committed. Don’t trip me up on my way.”
So is Jesus looking for the cross? Is he actively choosing to suffer? Doesn’t that take us back to the whole abusive relationship issue, in which pain drives humanity out of the people involved? I’m doubt Jesus is actively choosing the cross here, as much as he is resisting Peter’s arrogance in assuming that what he wants and what God wants are identical. “God forbid it!” Peter says of Jesus’ prediction of suffering. But if we are to live worthwhile lives, we will hurt sometimes. We will have to move forward in our lives not because we know God’s will for us or for the world that God so loves, not because we are sure that God will not allow us to be injured if we are doing our best. No, we are only able to put one foot in front of the other because we trust God to walk with us as we go. We have to get in exactly the geographic place Jesus tells Peter to go–behind him.
We won’t have to go looking for crosses if we follow Jesus’ footsteps–they will find us easily enough. But we will also find a life worth living. We can head toward our own Jerusalems, trusting God to forgive and renew us when we wander into messy terrain, to guide us when the fog is so thick we cannot see, and to put us back in our places if we wander off. Our crosses may be heavy. We may watch people we love suffer and not be able to stop it. We may find ourselves in the kind of great pain that only comes after a great love has died. We may find ourselves completely out of line with a world that wants to measure our worth by standards that are not kingdom of God standards. In the economy of God, the ones who are worth much are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the ones who suffer for righteousness’ sake. They are the ones in whose company we will be when we are behind Jesus. When we align ourselves with the abused, and not powerful abusers, when we stand alongside the widows and the orphans, not those who make money off their desperate situations, when we love every atom of God’s creation so much that it hurts, we are living worthwhile lives. Lives of worth. You are worth everything to Jesus Christ. It’s all about you. And it’s all about everyone and everything else. Thanks be to God.