Last Tuesday was World Refugee Day. This day has been commemorated on June 20th for the past 17 years and is dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. Currently there are approximately 65 million people on this planet who have been displaced because of war, strife, or environmental disasters like ongoing droughts in their home countries. And, as you can guess, the majority of these are children. 65 million, that’s about one sixth of the population of the U.S. And even though that’s less than 1% of the current world population, just imagine what it would be like if the roughly 40 million people in California alone had to evacuate and settle somewhere else – it’s mind blowing to think of the number of people who had to leave everything behind.
The Christian organization Bread for the World released a very thought-provoking statement in honor of this year’s World Refugee Day. It’s very brief and says, “Some leave their entire life behind to save it.”
Some leave their entire live behind to save it. You don’t just decide to leave your home, your community, sometimes even your family, on a whim. This is not a frivolous decision, but often involves the threat of losing one’s liberty, health or life. You must have some very compelling reasons to leave your entire life behind.
Now we are no strangers to that reality. We know of people who had to leave everything behind during or after World War II. We know people who fled the oppressive Socialist system in Eastern Germany. We may know people from other parts of the world who had to leave their country behind because of war or conflict.
But then, as Christians, we also have a wealth of stories in our Holy Scriptures of people having to leave their lives behind, from Cain, who had to flee after he slew his brother Abel, to the patriarchs and matriarchs who constantly were in search of a place that could sustain them, to the People of Israel on their Exodus from Egypt, to the people of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, who had to leave their countries as occupying superpowers moved in and took over – the Old Testament is riddled with human beings leaving their lives behind. In fact, the Prophet Jeremiah, whose words we heard in today’s lesson from the Old Testament, was among those who was forced to leave the kingdom of Judah after the Babylonians conquered it. We lose his tracks somewhere in the desert on the way to Egypt.
The Holy Family with the infant Jesus had to flee for Egypt because of King Herod’s fear to lose power and his murderous plan to hold on to it at any price. We know something about the harsh reality of people having to seek refuge. We get the sense that the story of God’s people is the story of people on the move, people, who leave their life behind to save it.
We get this sense in today’s gospel, which is one of those gospels that is among the more challenging ones. Here Jesus talks to his disciples, his followers, of trials and tribulations and threats, of fear, of separation between family members, of taking up one’s cross and bearing it. These are not words that promise peace and prosperity, but words that describe harsh realities in this world: that people, once they take a stand for Christ, once they walk in the ways of justice and grace and radical love, will face opposition. And this may lead to a life that is far from settled.
And in this we hear Jesus’ ominous words, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ And when we hear those words, we may think of physical death, of those countless martyrs, especially in the early church, who died for their faith, those, who followed Jesus Christ through torture and execution.
But then we know that those who literally died for Christ and for their faith have been but a tiny fraction of all Christians. So we get the sense that Jesus’ words about losing one’s life to gain it – and for that matter, the Apostle Paul’s repeated words about dying in Christ so that we can rise with him to a new life – have a more allegorical meaning that applies to all of us. All of us are called to leave our lives behind in order to gain life.
Some have to leave their entire life behind to save it. For some people, leaving their life behind literally is a life saver. I remember vividly the story a colleague from Washington State told once, about a young woman from China who was perceived to have been born under a curse. Her family treated her like she was a demon, and her mother didn’t stop telling her how much she wished she would just die – which led this young woman to contemplate suicide over and over.
Somehow this young woman made it to the U.S. and ended up in said colleague’s congregation. She attended classes in order to be baptized, and, as she was baptized, broke down and cried. As my colleague asked her why, she said, ‘You don’t understand: when you said that I died with Christ in the waters of baptism, I suddenly understood that I don’t have to kill myself. I just died – and now I see that I have a new life and a new chance.’
As you can tell, this story really stuck with me. And even though most of us already died and rose again in the waters of baptism when we were still infants, and we may not have experienced baptism as a literal lifesaver, just like this young woman, yet there is this reality: we die to the old so that we can live for the new. This reality unfolds as we grow up and live into our faith: daily we are challenged to seek newness of life, and not just for ourselves, but for all God created. When Christ talks about the kingdom of God, it’s not about my personal salvation and my place in heaven, but about the community of saints.
Christ talks to a community as he says, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ There is something about the transformation of the community, of how we live with each other, that destroys or saves lives. Now we all know that we, as individuals and as a society, are tempted to seek our own advantage first. The essence of our sin is, as Martin Luther puts it, to be curved into ourselves, which mean, to stare at our own navel. Why should I bother about the life and welfare of others?
But if we do just that, if we look at our own navel, we lose our heart and our soul – individually and as communities. We become a society where social Darwinism, and not the love and grace of God, is the true creed we follow. We become a society where it is all about survival, but not the fullness of life.
But this is not what God envisions for us and for creation. Jesus, in his parables of the kingdom of heaven, talks about parties, about shared joy, about tables laden with enough food to eat for everyone, about healing and life for all, and especially the least of these. This vision becomes our vision. This is how we follow Christ, by giving up on our ego and sharing life – our life – with others.
Some have to leave their entire life behind to save it. We may not be refugees. But, as people of God, we are transients in this world. We are on the road with Christ, called to follow, called to be unsettled. We are called to live God’s story, which is the story of people on the move, people, who leave their life behind to save it and the lives of many more; and not only that, but to find new life. A life that fulfills. A life to the fullest.
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