In his book, Zeitoun, Dave Eggers tells the story of one family’s experience during hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian-American man who lived in New Orleans with his wife Kathy and their children. Together, the couple ran a thriving and respected painting company. After the hurricane, Abdulrahman stayed in the city to watch over their properties while the rest of his family evacuated. As the scope of the disaster widened he made the choice to remain in his storm-struck neighborhood helping people and animals in need. After he spent his first day paddling the streets in a battered canoe, rescuing stranded neighbors, he returned to the roof of his flooded home to clean up and offer his evening prayers. As he ate his dinner that night, he wondered, “How could he explain to Kathy, to his brother Ahmad, that he was thankful he had stayed in the city? He was certain he had been called to stay, that God knew he would be of service if he remained. His choice to stay in the city had been God’s will.” (p. 110)
Miraculously, one of the flooded properties the Zeitouns owned still had a working phone. Each day at noon, he called his wife to assure her of his safety. One day he failed to call. For weeks, no one knew where he had gone. His family later learned that he was arrested on his own property. He was first held at a makeshift outdoor prison created by FEMA and later transferred to a maximum-security prison. He was not told the reason for his arrest. He was not allowed a phone call to notify his family. He did not receive legal counsel. He was humiliated with strip searches and constantly offered meals made with pork, which he, as a Muslim could not eat. Later, the reader learns that Abdulrahman was accused of looting and theft, but no investigation was made and no evidence discovered. Because he is Syrian-American, and Muslim, he eventually concluded that the authorities must have suspected him of being a terrorist. (Zeitoun, p. 262-3)
Today’s Gospel lesson centers around the cross. This is the first of three times that Jesus predicts his own suffering and death in the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s angry, disbelieving reaction makes the point: this teaching is difficult for Jesus’ followers to absorb, to accept. I suspect the cross is a challenging subject for many of us, too. I know I am deeply tired of the destructive theologies of the cross we have all inherited. I am pretty clear on things I don’t believe about the cross. The cross is not God’s plan. The cross is not a price for sin, which God demands be paid. The cross is not the perfect offering of God’s own child, which wipes away the anger of God and allows God to love and accept us again. And the cross must no longer be used to “baptize” violence or to glorify innocent suffering. As progressive Christians, we struggle to articulate a theology of the cross that is life-giving, that makes sense in a personal and experiential way. I appreciate George McLeod’s words about the cross. He urges us the church to resist the temptation to set aside this most central symbol and story of our faith. Instead, he asks us to wrestle with the cross. He raises it up as key to the relevance of the church in the world.
Today, the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun is helping me find meaning in the cross. Love is always a risk, and the cross is a consequence of our willingness to risk loving. Abdulrahman could have left his neighborhood and city, but love held him there. He could have ignored the cries of the hurting people and animals, but love urged him into, rather than away from, the danger. He could not have known how his own story would end, but he made an unselfish choice to heed the clear call of love, no matter what the consequences might be. Risk-taking can be sheer recklessness, but the risks we take which are motivated by love have a different quality about them. Taking the risk to show love is always worth it, because what we gain is greater than what we lose.
Jesus said: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” It is only through risking love that we come fully alive. Life without love is a kind of death.
I am struck with what Jesus was trying to show his disciples about his own journey. Not just that his story, as the Messiah, would end in suffering and death. That would have been shocking enough to followers who thought they were on their way to the glory of a victory over the powers that oppressed them. What really grabs me here is that Jesus knew it would be his own religious leaders who would seek his destruction. He saw that those given authority over his community were not motivated by love. Professor Mitzi J. Smith asks a provocative question in her commentary on this text: “How does a revolutionary leader prepare a colonized people for the death of their Messiah?” She muses:
Perhaps the chief priest, elders, and high priest, despite also being colonized subjects of the Roman Empire, have positioned themselves to partake of the spoils and privileges of empire. Perhaps they have convinced enough of the masses of ordinary poor people to act contrary to their own best interest and to join in a cause that favors only the rich and powerful.
Jesus accepts the path of the cross because his love is revolutionary. His love is full and honest and uncompromising and it risks imaging a different world, a world free of colonizing powers. And this love inevitably brings him into conflict with those whose vision is smaller and more selfish.
George McLeod argued that the cross is where the church should be, and what the church should be about. The Celtic cross (like St. Martin’s cross on your bulletin cover) always intersects with the circle of creation. In other words, the cross is a sign of the church’s relationship with the world. The cross brings God’s people to the places of suffering, fear, and violence, the places where we must risk acting with revolutionary love. The cross is wherever the storms are raging, the waters rising, the superfund sites flooding, the refugees running, the catastrophic effects of climate change unfolding. The cross is our nation’s immigration law. The cross is what happens to people like Jose, who was deported on Thursday, after 27 years in this country, leaving behind a wife who is seriously ill and two grown sons. The cross is 800,000 young immigrants waiting in terror to find out if they will lose the protection they’ve had under DACA. The cross is the “Nashville Statement” of conservative evangelical Christians, with its blatant denial that LGBT people, too, are made in God’s image. The cross is the recognition that even as we celebrate the victories of the labor movement, we still live in a nation in which the majority of people work for low wages, live paycheck to paycheck, and lack access to healthcare.
The cross is not something we have to seek out. It comes to us, in our everyday lives and relationships. There is always pain in love—love between spouses, parents and children, siblings, friends, strangers. We love in sickness and in health. We love when love is not given legal sanction. We love through the toddler years and the teen years and the years of old age. We love even those who annoy the heck out of us and those who hurt us. Love inevitably breaks our hearts because it recognizes and honors the pain of the beloved. True love walks on the path of suffering so that the other will not go alone. Whenever we take the risk to love, we take up the cross with Jesus. Whenever we take up the cross, we participate in the life-giving, life-saving power of love. There is always pain in love. And yet, love is God’s greatest gift to us. Love is a risk worth taking.
When, in your life, have you risked love? How has that choice brought you to life? In what way are you hearing the call to take the risks of love today?