When we think of how hard it is to let go of the things that make us feel significant and safe in this world, we don't want to hear that we have to give it all up in order to gain Christ. But look at the Apostle Paul and take heart. He doesn't have to renounce these things beforehand. Christ met him on the road to Damascus. He was going there with all his credentials in order to persecute Christians. Christ met him anyway. It was only after meeting Christ that Paul discovered that the things that used to make him feel good about himself could no longer do so. When Christ showed him how utterly unimportant all those things were, he didn't need them anymore. No longer relying on his own righteousness, he was saved by God's righteousness through his faith in Jesus Christ.
When we spend our time—as politicians often do—thinking that we are better, smarter, stronger, and more self-sufficient than other people, we are not likely to bother to look up and see the God who is looking down and loving us no matter how wrong or stubborn or insufferable we can sometimes be. We just have to get it in our heads that going home to God is not a weakness. Admitting that we were wrong and begging forgiveness is not a failing. Despite what the culture and the candidates teach us, being humble is not a sorry lack of self-confidence. It is a most amazing gift of grace. The only loss you incur is the loss of your false self, your proud self, and you didn't need it anyway. In losing your pride, you gain your soul.
Why does it take some of us so many years and so many tears to become who we were all along? I wonder how many of us are unhappy or unsatisfied or unfulfilled because we've been dreaming the wrong dream.... Maybe what we need is a new dream, one that is better suited to who we really are. Despite what you hear or may have been told, we were not put on this planet to live the American Dream. Besides, we are finding, as our economy becomes more globalized and our lives become entwined with people in Thailand and Bangladesh and Honduras, that our living the American Dream means that countless others will never get a chance to. As pleasant as that life may be, God is calling us to a different life, a more purposeful life.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus doesn't have a plan, except to fit into God's plan. "Not what I want," he says, "But what you want." [Matthew 26:39] And God's plan is far more open-ended than we might think. God doesn't have it all planned out ahead of time. When it comes to life in all of its complexities and all of it possibilities, God is far more creative and innovative than we can begin to imagine. Are you willing to take the risk of trusting that God can do something different, something new, something wonderful with you? Then I have some steps for you. Most of us don't like risk, so to give up your dis-hope will take some real discipline and patience. Dis-hope can be a bad habit. It can be an addictive pattern of thinking. Like giving up any other addiction, we have to do it one step at a time. With a tip of my hat to AA, here are my twelve steps for getting from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
In our Gospel reading this morning, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness not to avoid temptation, but to meet it head on, so that he could learn to resist it and to conquer it. There were things at the very start of his ministry that he had to learn to say "no" to. So he went into the wilderness because he had to say "no" to the devil before he could fully say "yes" to God. There was no other way for him to learn but by testing. In fact, that's how we all learn.
If the Church is going to be the Body of Christ today, we are the ones who need transfiguration. And I'm not talking about building new worship spaces or playing new music or using the latest technology. That's not what the Nones are looking for. The transfiguration I'm talking about is more fundamental than that. What we need is a reformation. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the first Protestant Reformation, and we are way over due for a second one. In the twenty-first century, if we don't let people of other faiths or no faith challenge us, if we don't let science teach us, if we don't let Christian doctrines grow and change with us, the world will one day be full of Nones and in the Church there will be next to no one.
For Gandhi, as for most Hindus, your religion isn't just a part of you; it's your whole life. Jesus' willingness to give it all, to suffer and die for Truth makes him a Hindu saint. If we could learn anything from the Hindu Jesus it would be that sacrificing oneself for God is an essential part of the good life. Hindus are better at it than Christians, according to Gandhi, and I think he's probably right. Here in the West, our biggest obstacle to following Jesus has always been our own ego. In India, the soul or self is one with the Universal Soul (Brahman). To recognize that is to be liberated from the fears, cravings and conflicts that cause us so much suffering. But in the West, our Soul is not one with anything. Instead, it stands alone. We consider it not one but Number One. Here we major in Self-Preservation not Self-Sacrifice. And because we try so hard to gain our life, we end up losing it in a thousand ways. Rarely do we risk losing our life for Christ in order to save it. [Mark 8:36]
In general, Buddhists are a lot more comfortable with religious pluralism than Christians are. But that is the world we live in today, and one thing Buddhists can do is help us Christians get beyond our dualistic, either/or way of thinking about everything. To survive on this planet, we need more both/and thinking. We already have some practice holding seemingly incompatible ideas together. We say that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. We say that God is both Three and One. So could we possibly say that both Christianity and Buddhism are true?
To the surprise of most Christians, Muslims feel a special closeness to Jesus. For one thing, Jesus and Muhammad stand together because, in Islam, there was no prophet that stands between them. And Jesus is mentioned 93 times in the Qur'an, more than Abraham. His mother Mary even has a book named after her, the only woman so honored in the Qur'an. But that isn't all. There are literally hundreds of stories and sayings of Jesus recorded in Muslim literature outside of the Qur'an. These references date from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries. Some have clear connections to our Gospels. Others have parallels with other early Christian works that didn't make it into the New Testament. And still others are completely original. Why this continuing interest in Jesus?
Jews teach us that Jesus is no slouch when it comes to holy living. Our Jewish Jesus is challenging. He is always calling us out for making excuses for not living up to the love of God. Of course, we complain that there is no way we could ever, on our own, fulfill the Law. And that is very true. But the point is that Jesus came and did fulfill it, and by his grace and mercy, those who follow him can, too. So let me summarize Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount this way: God has given you one precious life. What are you going to do with it? You may not know it, but you are a partner in God's redemption of the world. What are you going to do about your little corner of it?