“A bell is not a bell till you ring it. A song is not a song till you sing it. Love in your heart isn’t put there to stay. Love isn’t love till you give it away.”
This quote is attributed to Oscar Hammerstein, who passed this inspirational, handwritten note to the young woman who portrayed Maria in stage production of The Sound of Music.
For me, it is the clue to a proper understanding of Jesus’ more enigmatic and fundamental words in today’s gospel: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Hammerstein is suggesting that a bell has both body and a soul, both a metallic form and a life that can only be expressed when it is rung, when it gives itself away to anyone who is within earshot. The same is also true for a song. It has a body and a soul as well, both a written score and a life that can only be expressed when it is sung so that others may hear it.
You and I, too, are both a body and a soul. Jesus is telling his new disciples that they have begun to follow him because of the unique life that they have experienced through the sound of his words and the wonder of his deeds expressed with body just like theirs. The fact that their own bodies and souls resonate with the life of Jesus means that they are able to reciprocate that life, to echo that life. By following him, they are able to learn to express in their own lives the life they have first experienced in him.
So when Jesus says to us, “Those who find their life with lose it”, he is saying that whatever may make us alive cannot make us alive unless and until we give that life away, express that life, lose that life. And he goes on to say that if we lose our life for his sake, we will find it.
The “for his sake” qualification is where our pursuit of life can get more complicated and costly because it will always be tempting to try to substitute the lesser, derivative life we find in other things and in other people for the very source of life we have found in Jesus.
Jesus warns us that there may be times when we will have to choose between the life we have found in our families – our mothers or fathers, our sons or daughters – and the life we have found in Jesus. We can and should always love our families for Jesus’ sake, for the unique life that only he can offer them, but if we love our families for their own sake, for the love they can give us in return, it will never rise to the level of Jesus’ love for us, unless, of course, they love us for Jesus’ sake and not for the love that only they can give.
We see hints of this in Jesus’ own life, when, as a twelve-year-old boy, he stays behind in the temple in Jerusalem, and when his parents discover he is missing and they anxiously return to find him, he is surprised at their concern. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” he asks them. Or again, when the wine runs out at a wedding reception and Jesus’ mother approaches Jesus to somehow fix it, Jesus responds, “What is that to you and me? The time for me to lose my life for my Father’s sake has not yet come.” Or again, when his brothers and sisters, who think he’s gone crazy with some sort of Messiah complex, try unsuccessfully to persuade him to come back home and take up his father’s carpenter business. The greatest gift a mother and father can give their child is the example of being active in church as disciples of Jesus, of witnessing with their own lives to the higher life they have found in Jesus.
We’re all familiar with Harry Chapin’s song, “The Cat’s in the Cradle,” which reminds us how hard it is to break out of the conscious and unconscious hold that our parents may have on us and we may have on our children, a hold that may prevent us from following Jesus to a larger life that will, in turn, free us to relate differently and more graciously to those who are closest to us.
The challenge of having to choose between a great love and the greatest of loves can occur between a citizen and his nation, as we see in the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had found his life as a prophet. He was never more fully alive than when God was ringing his bell or singing his song through him. But when Jeremiah realized that the message that God was sending out of him was a message that his fellow citizens did not want to hear, he was profoundly conflicted to the point where he complained to God this morning that it wasn’t fair for God to put him in that position.
Like most of us, Jeremiah wanted very much for other people to love and accept him, but he knew that if he was true to his calling as a prophet, he knew his fellow citizens would ridicule him or even worse, threaten his physical life, because the message that God had for his people was one of judgment, judgment motivated out of God’s love for his wayward people, but a very painful judgment nonetheless that would result in violence, destruction, death and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. Rather than accepting God’s judgment, and trusting that life could only be found in God, the Israelites sought their security in an earthly alliance with Egypt. When forced to choose, they chose to trust Egypt rather than God.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, he had this kind of predicament in mind, of having to choose between the good and the best, an earthly alliance, the respect of your fellow citizens, or the love and affection of your family on the one hand, all good to be sure, and the love of God on the other, of infinitely more value.
So today we hear Jeremiah’s complaint: “Why did you put me in this situation?” And I believe when those moments come, even when we pray that they may never come, we can trust it is God’s way of helping us clarify where the true source of our life comes from. The capacity for love that has been placed in our heart was placed there by God himself, and it is in our faithful and obedient response to him, whatever it may cost us, even the loss of our bodily life or the life we enjoy with our family or friends or political allies or even our brothers and sisters in Christ, wherever we may be tempted to settle for anything less than our essential relationship with God: it is there and only there that the newness of life that Jesus offers us is always to be found.
Abraham certainly understood this awful dilemma when God called him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He had to have faith that God had a life to give that was even stronger than death. You and I are sons and daughters of Abraham because we share that same faith, demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ own obedience, even unto death, and the resurrection he lives and shares with us through the glory of his Father
Jesus reminds us that our life, the soul within us that he calls forth like the sound of a bell or the voice of a song, is much more precious to him than the soul of a sparrow in song or in flight because we humans have so much more capacity for love and for the life that only love freely given away with no strings attached, even unto death, can bring. Let us give away the love that God in Christ has planted in our hearts, no matter what it may cost. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” AMEN.