Foolish Love is Risky
(Week 6)

Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48; 26:14-25, 47-50
   I asked Google for quotes about risk, and it pointed me to an article on the page for Ellevate, an organization that purports to give people (especially women) a career kickstart.[1] I have no affiliation with that organization, nor any idea if it is effective or not, neither do I know if the quotes it attributes to the following people are accurate. But here were some that caught my attention:

      “If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” – Erica Jong
      “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations, can never effect a reform.” – Susan B. Anthony
      “Making a bold move is the only way to advance toward the grandest vision the universe has for you.” – Oprah Winfrey
      “… in order for the turtle to move, it has to stick its neck out. There are going to be times in your life when you’re going to have to stick your neck out. There will be challenges and instead of hiding in a shell, you have to go out and meet them.” – Dr. Ruth Westheimer  

    As we enter Holy Week, let’s ask, “How would our lives be different if Jesus had been too afraid to take a risk?” We know Jesus had the benefit of being God and knowing ultimately this week would lead to an empty tomb. But Jesus was also walking around in a human body, a body that felt pain, hunger, and fear just as we do. None of those sensations are ones we can shrugged off as if they are nothing. All of them will drive people at times to acts of rage or violence.
     So let’s sit for just a moment with those quotes and the unfolding of Holy Week and consider what would have happened if Jesus was not willing to risk it all for us.

     If Jesus was truly concerned about his reputation, he wouldn’t have considered coming in on a donkey. On the other side of town, a Roman official was coming in on a horse, with chariots and guards around him. Jesus would have at the very least matched that energy if reputation was his concern.

      If Jesus was unwilling to make a bold move, he most certainly would not have flipped the tables in the Temple, which drew the murderous ire of the authorities. He probably just would have been ripped off by the cheating merchants, made his offering, and gone on his way.

      If Jesus hadn’t stuck his neck out as he faced questioning by Caiaphas and Pilate by speaking to the truth of whom he was, he might have just been whipped and sent on his way. Or, he may never have faced questioning to begin with.

      If Jesus hadn’t been willing to take the cup and drink from it, to face betrayal and denial, to risk everything for us, then none of us would know the revelation of the empty tomb and the salvation that God seeks for us all. Jesus seemed to risk everything so we could have everything.

     Now the question becomes, “How much do we risk for others to know the love and salvation of Christ?”

    This is an important question to ask. Often people will equate discipleship with taking up our cross and following Jesus. What does that mean?

      Many times what people mean when they say those words is that the only proof that you are a true disciple is that you suffer profoundly. Suffering becomes the litmus test of how great a disciple you are. The worse your life is, the more holy you are, and the more committed you are to truly following Christ.

      No. No, no, no, no, and no!

      Here is the profound problem with that theology. It makes the cross the point of our faith. The reason that the cross represents Christianity, my friends, is because it is easy to draw – far easier than trying to draw an empty tomb. But the Gospels don’t culminate in the cross; they culminate in the resurrection! The point of our faith is overcoming all the evil and suffering of our world to bring people to fuller life! Suffering is what must be overcome! It is not the point, but the obstacle!

      But now that raises the question, “Is suffering a necessary obstacle?”  That’s a more complicated question to answer.

      Raquel A. St. Clair wrote Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark to address exactly that question. What she faced was the challenge of her community of African American women in which so many of them were wearing the suffering they were undergoing as a badge of honor. In her community, suffering and oppression were proof for some that they were living like Christ. She watched women stay in horrific, abusive relationships and justify their state by saying that taking such abuse kept them closer to Christ. This theology, by the way, is not exclusive to black women. Many people in abusive relationships find themselves caught in that theology, and abusers also capitalize on this theology to keep the abused in these situations. This is a moment where theology really matters.

     So St. Clair asks about the necessity of suffering in discipleship. As she surveys a great number of theologians and sociologists and others, she comes to these three helpful definitions:
     Agony: “the disturbance of our inner tranquility caused by physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual forces that we grasp as jeopardizing our lives, our very existence.”[2]
     Suffering: “unmetabolized, unscrutinized agony.”[3]
     Pain: “named and recognized agony that comes as a result of life-affirming behavior.”[4]

     In St. Clair’s reflection, agony is the umbrella that contains both suffering and pain. Agony is the disruption of shalom, the disturbance of peace that signals for us that sin is present in the situation and we are not yet in the fullness of the reign of God. Whether that condition gives rise to suffering or pain is the heart of the matter, though.

     All three of these are present in the Holy Week journey of Christ, and especially so on the cross. If humanity’s dysfunction and tendency toward destruction were ever fully on display in one week, that would be it. Jesus’ tranquility is disrupted; we know that from the prayer in Gethsemane, as well as his prophetic weeping for Jerusalem. We also see that his life is in jeopardy. This was Jesus’ full agony.

     And yes, there is suffering. There is suffering in watching the ones he loves – all the ones he loves (Jewish authorities, Pilate, the crowd, and the disciples) – choose paths of violence, fear, ridicule, and hate. But in the midst of this suffering, there is also pain. There is pain because Jesus sees beyond these destructive moments to the salvation that will come to all of these sinners through the resurrection. Jesus is willing to accept the pain to achieve the definitive moment of life-affirmation in the empty tomb.

      So if we return to the question of whether suffering is necessary in discipleship, we can confidently say, “No!” It is not necessary, though it may be present nonetheless. However, we should not seek out suffering as proof of our kinship with Christ. Suffering is what Christ sought to defeat.

      Seeking to end agony so that we perpetually live in the fullness of God’s reign may mean subjecting ourselves to pain, but that is with the goal of more people experiencing the fullness of life. So, when Martin Luther King, Jr. undertook his mission for greater equality, he knew there would be pain in that mission. Agony was likewise at work, threatening and even ending his life. But it was all for the greater good, and for the diminishment of agony for so many. That is the kind of discipleship some of us are called to.

      But none of us are called to remain in states of suffering as a part of our discipleship. So St. Clair can affirm that the women she knows in abusive relationships are suffering toward no good purpose. Jesus came precisely to set them free from that suffering. Jesus also came to set their abusers free from participating in such suffering. But that is the work of Christ, not the work of women who are caught in agonizing situations. They can, however, participate in the pain of ending those relationships with the hopes that life-affirming realities come to be. Hopefully they do not undertake that pain alone, though, and they have a world of support around them – in shelters, law enforcement, therapy, education – to achieve an end to their suffering.

      In the video for this week, Johnna Kosnoff references ubuntu, the African/Zulu concept that a person is a person through other people. It calls us to remember that we can never be whole without others, and when our neighbors do not thrive, none of us thrive. God has created us to be interconnected, to love not only God but to love our neighbors. Neighbors may be our enemies. Neighbors may be in precarious, dangerous situations. We are still called to take risks on their behalf. We are called to the pain of reconciliation and restoration, so that their suffering ends and the world’s agony is diminished.
     Discipleship is risky, especially when we are doing the necessary work of eliminating agony from the world. All of us should be willing from time to time to experience the pain of that journey. None of us should be willing to suffer, however, simply for the purpose of suffering. That doesn’t bring us closer to Christ. Doing the hard work of breaking the back of sin does though. That’s the risk we take as followers of Christ: the risk to love enough to be uncomfortable, to be challenged, to set aside our positions of power and ease, and seek the end of suffering in the world.  It is that suffering that should cause us agony and disrupt us enough to love like Christ loved - that risky, beautiful, painful, transformative love.
  • If you have you seen the theology that claims that suffering brings us closer to Christ used to keep people in terrible situations, what were the results?
  • What do you find helpful about St. Clair’s understanding of the difference between agony, suffering and pain? What, if anything, is problematic about it?
  • Who is it risky for you to love? How can you love them in helpful ways?
  • How would a philosophy of ubuntu benefit our society today?

   [2] Raquel A. St. Clair, Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 36. These terms are printed in bold print to help us remember they refer to these definitions.
   [3] Ibid.
   [4] Ibid., 69.


Sunday, March 24
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:43-48; 26:14-25, 47-50
Personal Reflection
     Question: As we begin Holy Week, who do you most feel like in the story – the crowd, the authorities, Pontius Pilate, Mary, Judas, Peter, Jesus, or someone else, and why do you feel that way?

Monday, March 25
Scripture Reading: 1 John 4:7-9
We build sandcastles
Is it the pride?
The joy of creation?
Maybe even getting to share our work with others.
But we always know,
that by the end of the day, or the end of the week,
They will be gone.
A flat mound of sand,
just like the rest of the sandcastles before them
Unknown to the rest of the world,
The work and creativity of the massive towers of shining sand,
Now a desolate landscape of sand and sea.
But WHY do we make them?
It’s because of the joy of sharing the creation,
the free ticket to a sandcastle museum for others
The feeling, that even though they will be gone,
that all the hard work has paid off,
and that we finished the towers of beautiful,
shining sand sculptures,
fingers sore and worn from the work,
but creation pulses through our veins.
Art for the world to see.
- Alice Clapper

Tuesday, March 26
Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:16-23
     How easy it is to foolishly follow Jesus? These verses are not ones that most of us seek out to read. We want to hear about adventures that were had, good news that was spread, and teaching people about loving Christ; just as we want our own lives to be laid out. Jesus needed to warn his disciples of the hard road it was going to be to spread the good news about him. Jesus needed them to put themselves out there, uncomfortably so, to change lives for the better. His disciples had to put themselves in situations they did not want to be in. They had to love foolishly when it came to Jesus, because they saw the bigger picture at the end.
     Is it easier to pray with a friend or pray with a stranger? Praying with a friend could feel comfortable, safe, and easy. Praying with a friend might mean that you both already have the same religious view or love one another enough to look past your differences. Praying with a stranger could bring out so many more emotions like reassurance, fear, investment, empowerment, growth. These are the emotions I believe Jesus was wanting his disciples to have and was setting them up for. Sometimes the road that we need to take is the hard road, meaning it can be uncomfortable, fearful, scary, tiresome, exhausting, relentless, broken, and full of unknowns, but don’t we owe to God to at least try?
-Allison Earhart

Wednesday, March 27
Scripture Reading: Luke 10:25-37
Personal Reflection
     Question: Who is your neighbor, and what risk do you need to undertake to help them get what they need?

Thursday, March 28
Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:36-46
     Gethsemane means the place of an oil press. It was an appropriate place for Jesus to go for his final prayers. As the time of his crucifixion neared, Jesus must have felt pressed by the suffering to come. At this time, when he most needed the support of his three trusted disciples, they fell asleep rather than praying with him. His three prayers for the cup to be taken were not answered. His human side wanted to avoid what was to come, but he prayed that he would be able to do what the Father wanted. His disciples, being merely human, let him down.
     Growing up as a Baptist, I did not know about Advent and Lent, but as an adult, I find the seasons of the Christian year make the holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, more meaningful. During this season of Lent, we, as disciples, pledge to sacrifice something in memory of Christ’s sacrifice for us.  Too often, we are weak like the disciples in the garden. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Our prayer should be that God will give us the strength to willingly honor our pledge, as we prepare for the joy of Easter.
- Emily Douglas

Friday, March 29
Scripture Reading: Matthew 26:69-75
Foolish Love is Risky
Hi I’m Peter. I mean I am figuratively Peter. I have been known to say, “If we just left the Jesus out of it more people might come to church.” I know you are thinking. “Wow, she isn’t kidding… she is Peter! And how are we going to leave Jesus out of church?” Unfortunately for me and many, the church has been a place where Jesus’ love was conditionally based on the admission of wrongdoings and a commitment of change. Slowly, I have reentered a faith community, thanks to a church that I describe as simply a safe place. Some would call me foolish for taking the risk and rejoining an institution with a message that caused me lots of confusion and pain.
     As an early childhood educator, I always seem to find meaning and explanation on life’s biggest mysteries/questions through the eyes of a child. While scrolling mindlessly on social media one evening (when I meant to be preparing for this devotional), I ran across this picture of a prayer request written in a child’s handwriting. It turned out this child’s words were all the prep I needed. The eight-year-old child who wrote this was the daughter of an old high school classmate. She sat in the pew with her family in the same church that showered her mom and I in our early, unruly, foolish teen years with acceptance and unconditional love.
     I challenge you this Lenten season to imagine yourself as a child sitting in a pew. What might you write? Just like a child we all learn from taking risks. Stop denying your childlike self and write a prayer to share a little foolish love with the world. And what do know? It could be foolish love that keeps us all coming back to church.
- Lauren Floyd

Saturday, March 30
Scripture Reading: John 19:38-42
Personal Reflection
     Question: What is the riskiest thing you have done for Jesus?