We are all familiar with the tension between risk and safety. When we choose our investment plan for retirement we are specifically asked about our risk tolerance. High risk investments can have wonderful financial results when the market is good. They can also have heartbreaking losses. A conservative portfolio offers security but not the possibility of remarkable growth. We navigate the risk-safety tension in different ways depending on age and other factors.
Let me ask you a question: How would you measure your personal risk tolerance on the journey of lent? What factors would you use to evaluate your tolerance of risk in following Jesus?
“He saved his life by never risking it.” This cryptic phrase was written in the journal of Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold was the second secretary general of the United Nations. He served in a tumultuous period of the cold war and national independence movements. He died in a mysterious plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961. His journal, discovered after his death, revealed the depth of his faith and commitment to God. “He saved his life by never risking it” was his critique of people that chose to play it safe with their lives.
Friday, 24 March, marks the 37th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Romero had been elected by colleagues who thought he was a safe choice. He was sixty years old. His track record as a priest and theological educator showed him to be a conservative. He served as Archbishop for only three years. His perspective on faith and the gospel were shaped by stories he heard from the poor. He once said that the poor inform us of the nature of the world and the service required of the church.
In his last sermon, Romero called on soldiers of the national army to convert to the gospel and to disobey orders that conflicted with the law of God. He demanded in the name of God that the government stop the repression. Colleagues advised him to go into hiding for his safety. But he refused. The next day he was shot while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital of Divine Providence. It is a holy place for those of us that have visited that site.
Romero received regular death threats. In 1979, near the beginning of his role as archbishop, he asked for prayers that he would not abandon his people and that he would run all the risks that his ministry demanded. There is a portion of his journal in the chapel where he was killed. It expresses his thoughts a few weeks before his death. I want to quote from it:
It is not easy to accept a violent death, which is very possible in these circumstances… my attitude should be to hand my life over to God regardless of the end to which that life might come; that unknown circumstances can be faced with God’s grace; that God assisted the martyrs, and that if it comes to this I shall feel God very close as I draw my last breath; but that more valiant than surrender in death is the surrender of one’s whole life – a life lived for God.
We have the contrast. We make choices. We live somewhere between risk and safety in our daily decisions. There is a voice that says we save our lives by protecting them with money, possessions, and security. There is another voice about living for God. We are familiar with these two voices because they are always with us. I invite you to recognize them and then to listen to the words of Jesus in Caesarea Philippi.
Scripture: Luke 9.18-27
The reading begins with a description of Jesus at prayer. He breaks from speaking with God and now speaks to his disciples. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” What are they saying about me? What are the opinions of people in Galilee? Jesus is a controversial figure. The answers given by the disciples look to someone from Israel’s past in order to understand Jesus.
The second question is much more personal. It is a question that keeps coming back to each one of us?
“But what about you? Who do you say I am?” The text asks us our own time and circumstances: What do you believe about Jesus? What words would you choose? Saviour. Lord. Teacher. Friend. God. Healer. Leader. Merciful One.
Peter answers: God’s Messiah. You are the one we have been promised. You are the one we have been waiting for you.
The friends gathered around Jesus are not given time to think about titles. The theme changes. The conversation becomes dark. Jesus surprises his followers. No one expected God’s Messiah – the hope of Israel – to talk in this way. The Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by the leaders of his own people. He will be killed. Then he will be raised to life by God.
Put yourself in the position of the friends gathered around Jesus. This is not the future you expected. You longed for success not for pain and humiliation. You are in shock. But the message does not stop at this point. We need to pay close attention to the following words because they are spoken to us. It is here that we need to listen to God’s Spirit whispering to us.
Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their crosses daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will save it.
Here we have it. The two options. The first is based on the primary motivation to save one’s life. Jesus goes on to speak about the desire to gain the whole world at the cost of one’s soul, one’s inner life and integrity. On the other side, there is the call to lose one’s life for Jesus. Did this mean violent death? Is Jesus speaking about an insane desire for martyrdom?
The answer is clearly “no.” Jesus is speaking about the freedom of self-denial and allowing the Spirit to lead us into the world. He is helping us to put the natural instincts for security, pleasure, and safety in their proper place. These concerns should never be the primary motivations of our lives.
Let us go back to Oscar Romero. He understood that the big question was not the date or circumstances of his death. The real issue was about living each day for God. Through his words, Jesus is encouraging us to live each day for God. He leads us on life giving path of conscious resistance to the forces and propaganda around us. The gospel tradition helps us to understand the freedom of self-denial and carrying the cross. The double love command moves us toward the freedom to embrace diverse people as neighbors. We have the freedom to sit at a common table where food is shared with the rich and the poor, the marginalized and secure. We feel the Spirit leading us toward the freedom of simplicity in order to live joyfully with generosity. We find our identity and our life by following Jesus and attending to his teaching.
The call is both demanding and gracious. The cross is a symbol of death. Self-denial in our culture of excess is viewed suspiciously. The world has always judged success using material measures rather than in measurements of the Spirit. We discover unexpected grace in this call of Jesus. When evening comes, we may feel that we have stumbled and dropped the cross. Each new day is a gift with fresh opportunities. We leave the past behind. We raise the cross. We follow Jesus into the world.
I want to conclude this Lenten reflection by emphasizing the importance of this theme. We are challenged to live creatively and obediently in the tension between security and risk, between acquiescence and dissent, between self-care and acts of compassion and justice for others. It takes honesty, thoughtfulness, prayer, and a certain tolerance of risk to have the freedom to follow Jesus in our time.
Small Group Reflection
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
- Do you remember a time when you wrestled between playing it safe and taking a risk? What were the options? How do you feel looking back on that experience?
- What does it mean to you to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus? How would you explain this saying to a friend?
- Self-denial is a virtue of God’s rule. What practices of positive self-denial or resistance do you wish to develop in order to live with greater freedom, faithfulness, and love?
- What grace from God do you seek in the coming days?