Losing One’s Life, Only to Regain It

Losing One’s Life, Only to Regain It

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Pentecost 3A – June 25, 2017

If our gospel story had taken place in today’s superficial world of tweets, I can only imagine what this morning’s newsfeed would read. “Jesus turns against families! Pits fathers against sons, and mothers against daughters!” Or, worse still: “Christ urges his followers to wield the sword! Says peace is not achievable!”

Such hypothetical tweets are not entirely inaccurate, of course, because Jesus does say, as we just heard: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….” And so too does he say: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But if we’re interested in really understanding what Jesus means with these words, rather than merely being seduced by the easy sensationalism of twitter feeds, then we have to take the time to plumb these texts a little more deeply.

To get at these issues, let me tell a story. When I was a chaplain at Harvard, our student community worshipped in Christ Church Cambridge, where my altar guild support was a lovely, older widow by the name of Summer Akimoto. With great care each week, Summer would always wash and iron the fine linens for the altar, so that our service of holy communion was appropriately elegant and reverent. Although Summer was a white woman, she had married a Japanese-American man by the name of Ted Akimoto, whose last name she had taken. I never knew Ted, because, sadly, he died shortly before I arrived at Harvard.

When you meet Summer, you immediately realize that she still adores her late husband, as she loves to share Ted’s story with others, and rightly so. Ted was a prize-winning war photographer. He served with distinction as a U.S. Army officer during World War II on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff. He was one of the first photographers to visit Hiroshima after the bomb, and his photographs painfully document the devastation of that awful historical moment.

The really extraordinary part of Ted’s story, though, is not his artistry as a photographer so much as it is the events that led up to his service. You see, Ted and his two brothers, Victor and Johnny, volunteered to serve their country despite the fact that just months before their enlistment, in early 1942, the United States had herded their family into an internment camp. The Akimotos were loyal American citizens who had lived in Southern California for decades, but that didn’t matter in the wake of Pearl Harbor, when panic won out over good sense. At the time, President Roosevelt ordered internment of anyone with Japanese blood as an expedient solution to identifying and corralling “the enemy.”

As Ted later told the story, “We couldn’t believe it. We had been American citizens all our lives. Yet, we were given 30 days to get rid of all our possessions, and then we, along with all our Japanese-American neighbors were ordered into trucks and taken to live at the Santa Anita Race Track, where our house was a 12-foot by 20-foot room. High fences topped with barbed wire surrounded us, and every 50 yards there was a guard tower with a machine gun. Eventually, my parents were sent to Idaho to work in the beet fields, where the they lived for years in what had been a chicken coop.”

Despite this humiliating treatment of their family, the three Akimoto boys were determined to do what they knew was right. They enlisted in the military to demonstrate their devotion to this country’s values, joining the now-famous 442nd Combat Infantry, a military unit made up entirely of the children of Japanese immigrants who volunteered for service. The 442nd became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. Ted’s bothers, Victor and Johnny, died in combat soon thereafter serving their country. But because of his artistic gifts, Ted was spared the dangers of combat and instead was asked to use his talents to capture artistically the story of that war.

Summer tells me that notwithstanding his brothers’ deaths, and his family’s imprisonment, Ted never harbored any bitterness. He and his brothers did their duty, and made these enormous sacrifices, because of a love of something greater than self-interest, greater than even family.

I tell this story because it illustrates Jesus’ first point in our gospel text today. When the Akimoto sons had to decide between staying in an internment camp to protect their mom and dad or enlisting in the United States Army during the war, their choice involved a difficult decision between competing goods. All other things being equal, caring for one’s parents in such extreme circumstances would be a good thing to do, and no one would have blamed them had they done so. But the Akimotos discerned a higher good: serving their country and fighting for freedom, even at a time when such freedom was perversely being denied their own family by the very country for which they were fighting. They had faith that their loyalty to a higher cause would, with God’s help, eventually lead to a greater good.

Just so, when Jesus says that following him may at times separate families, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, he is merely speaking the hard truth that our allegiance to God can at times require us to sacrifice other goods, even extraordinary goods like love of family. I’m quite sure that it broke Mr. and Mrs. Akimoto’s hearts to see their three sons go off to war, and I’m sure it broke the sons’ hearts to leave their mom and dad in an internment camp with an uncertain future to fight for their country; but no one can seriously doubt that the choice they made, painful as it must have been, was the right one.

Jesus’ point in today’s gospel is to remind us that our relationship to God’s truth is of such primary importance that we should never forget its centrality to our identity. I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend; but before any of those things, I’m a child of God and a follower of Jesus. It’s not that Jesus wants to break up families. He merely wants us to understand the proper ordering of our loves, so that we remember that our love for all things in this world is ultimately grounded in the love of God, and the love that God has for us.

The great church father, St. Augustine, developed a beautiful theology around this concept of the proper ordering of love. If I choose to eat a peach because I love peaches, that is well and good. But if I choose to eat a peach when my neighbor’s house is on fire, that is another matter altogether, as I’ve perversely set my own love of eating peaches above the love of my neighbor. Likewise, if I choose to protect my family’s interests over allegiance to God, I am wrongly favoring a lowered ordered love over a higher one. The moral life, for Augustine, is learning how to choose those things we love in the right order at the right time.

Sin, on the other hand, is the tendency to love lesser goods over higher ones. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good glass of wine with dinner. But when I while away the evening drinking glass after glass, instead of spending time with my family, or enjoying a good book to my betterment, then I’ve lost myself in a lesser good.

You’ll notice that choosing a higher good over a lower good does not always lead to immediate happiness. Such choices can be hard and painful decisions, as Ted Akimoto learned. But happiness per se is not the aim of the Christian life. As C.S. Lewis once said: “I didn’t become a Christian to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

The aim of the Christian life is not happiness, but love, and as any parent knows, as any spouse knows, the requirements of love can indeed be painful, but they are always worth it. For we know that, in the end, Christ’s love makes everything new, just as surely as we know that the Akimoto sons are now sitting by Christ’s side in Paradise.

All well enough, you might say, but now what about this business of favoring the sword over peace? What sense do we make of these words of Jesus?

First of all, if we know anything at all about Jesus, we know that Jesus is not talking about literally taking up the sword of violence. This is the same Jesus, let us remember, who refused to take up arms against the Romans when they wrongly tried, convicted and crucified him; it is the same Jesus who chastised Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter raised a sword against the Roman soldiers in defense of Jesus; it is the same Jesus who preaches turning the other cheek, taking up one’s cross, and enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel. No, Jesus hasn’t suddenly changed his mind about violence.

Rather, when Jesus says he brings a sword, he means that, as God’s decisive Word, his presence calls each of us to decision, cutting right to the heart of the matter. There is good and evil in this world, and in raising Jesus from the dead, God forever affirms the victory of good over evil. In today’s gospel, Jesus is calling each one of us to stand with him, decisively, on behalf of good, no matter the cost. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, those who choose Christ stand firm with Christ, not wielding the sword of this world, but rather “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Ephesians 6:17.

This is exactly why following Christ can, at times, engender conflict and division, because the truth is: some people are willing to seek after the good, and stand up for it, while others choose otherwise. This may seem harsh, but it is in fact a necessary corollary to the gift of freedom we are given. God created us in His image as creatures who are free to choose. And because God honors and values that freedom, He does not and will not coerce us to do what is right. We are each given the choice.

Ted Akimoto understood these things. He chose to sacrifice family, he chose to sacrifice self, he chose to put aside all the things of this world he loved, in order to show the world that what He loved most was not of this world.

And so, too, did Ted Akimoto trust. Ted trusted in what Jesus promises in the very last verse of today’s gospel: that those who lose their life for my sake will find it, and abundantly so.

If, God forbid, Jesus had to tweet out the message of today’s gospel in 140 characters or less, I suspect it would go something like this:

“Give it up for God. All of it. Follow me. Find your real self. Don’t be afraid. I have your back. Your friend, in love, for eternity, Jesus.”