And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
We seem to be getting to different messages as we read the Scriptures today. On the one hand in the story of Abram and Sari we are told of God’s blessing. They will have a son and their offspring will become many nations. Their descendants will be given the land of Canaan as their land. I suspect it is hard for many of us to fully appreciate the promise to have children and grandchildren and to have a place to belong.
Perhaps to appreciate the sense of place we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, Uyghurs of China. In each case they are people without a place to call their land. And of course, we can include many indigenous Australians removed from their “country” and placed either with white families or in places like Cherbourg, Palm Island or Yarrabah. To be a migrant or refugee or a disposed people living for generations without rights is profoundly dehumanising. The promise of children and a deep sense of place is a very powerful promise.
If we had read on to verse 17 of the story of Abram we would have seen Abraham rolling on the floor laughing out loud. The thought of Sarah and he having children at this stage of life and perhaps even the notion of a homeland seemed totally ridiculous. I wonder how Eddie Marbo might have responded if someone had said to him, one day your people will have a treaty, and one day one of your descendants will become Prime Minister. The battle for land rights seemed impossible at times during that long battle in the courts. Or if you said to one of the prisoners in an Australian Detention centre, your family will one day have Australian Passports, and will sit in the houses of parliament of this country. It might be tears of disbelief rather than laughter. That is the kind of promise God is making to Abraham.
So, in the story of Abraham we have a wonderful promise of God’s blessing. But then we come to the Gospel and Jesus says, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me. That doesn’t sound like an invitation to a life of promise and blessing. There is a deep cost to discipleship. It is a cost that is barely hinted at when we baptise people as members of the Church. Sure, we ask, do you turn to Christ, and do you repent of your sin. But we don’t ask will you deny yourself and be willing to die as followers of Jesus? Often if anything people seem to want baptism for their children so they can gain access to a church school.
So how should we understand what Jesus was saying. I suspect one of the blessings of being a parent is that we are given plenty of opportunities to deny self. Most parents will have times when they sit up half the night nursing a sick child or rocking a distressed child back off to sleep. The film Lion expresses well the deep suffering that comes from choosing to give a home, a sense of place and family to lost and abandoned children. For some parents it is the death of a child that causes the deep pain of parenting. Parents love their children and foster children and as such they choose to embrace the pain of being fully human.
Sometimes the profession we choose also draws us into moments of self-denial and the choice of suffering. Things like teaching and nursing spring to mind readily. Part of nursing includes nursing those who are dying. Nurses grow to love their patients and will do things like come back after their shift has finished to say goodbye, knowing that it may be the last time they see that person. Many teachers go the extra mile to prepare to prepare material for the brighter or slower children or nurture a particular gift in a child. Other professions are less obvious. The police for instance are exposed to crime scenes and accident scenes that eventually leave them struggling with PTSD. Again, consciously or unconsciously we choose to embrace the pain of being fully human.
The teachers may never know if their selfless gift ever made a difference to their students. The Police and similar professions end up bringing the PTSD home to the family causing them suffering as well. Perhaps they wonder if the work they did ever changed our society for the better. This costly love for humanity is exactly the discipleship that Jesus is calling us to. You might like to reflect on your own life and ponder the times of costly love. You may not have felt what you were doing was out of any special commitment to follow Jesus. You were just being a parent or a police officer or whatever. I want to say thank you to all of you who have generously shown costly love. Even if you did not know it you have blessed our community.
The other part of this self-denial and embracing costly love is when we open our hearts to people in our world who are hurting. That may be members of our own parish who are struggling with illness or with a loved one with illness or grieving for family members. When we phone or visit we have to face the vulnerability of our own lives when we sit with them in their struggles. All the different ways of expressing love through cards, phone calls and visiting with a small gift remind people they are not alone and not forgotten. Sometimes people who are grieving become angry because all their friends seem to disappear. Jesus calls us to sit with them in the pain and uncertainty. We will feel powerless and we will feel uncomfortable when they cry, that is the cost of human love.
When we feel the earth crying because it has been abused by humanity, we feel powerless. But we can act in small ways including writing to our politicians. We can do the same for the many other issues that an open heart responds to. And yes, each time we will wonder if our letter, our small donation or our small action carries any weight in a world where money and power speak louder than ordinary people. This too is costly love, the discipleship that Jesus calls us to.
I believe that this self-denial and self-sacrifice that Jesus calls us into paradoxically the gateway to abundant life full of rich blessings. The pain is real. The feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are real. In this space of giving up of self we share in the rich blessings that were promised to Abraham and Sarah.
I would like to finish with the 2nd half of the prayer of St Francis as it expresses this self-denial well.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.