Pentecost 18 C: What is Worth the Risk?

The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament            Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7

Psalm Psalm 66:1–12


Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament            2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15c

Psalm   Psalm 111

New Testament           2 Timothy 2:8–15

Gospel                Luke 17:11–19

Years ago, one July 5, I was watching the late night news on a Chicago television station. One of the items was about a young suburban man who had been entertaining his family and neighbors with an Independence Day fireworks demonstration. At one point he lit an especially large charge and threw it in a 50 gallon drum. When it didn’t go off, the man went to investigate, and put his head down into the drum to investigate. When the device went off, it killed him instantly.

In the wake of the police and ambulance, came the reporters; and the father of the deceased was interviewed. Struggling to put the best construction on the tragedy , he said, “Well, he died doing what he loved.”

Much of life is deciding what is worth the risk. I’m not sure if that dead man did due diligence before he risked his life for the cause of a bang up Fourth, but surely people do make implicit decisions like this every day, risking serious injury or death for the sake of something bigger or higher. Last week one of the world’s top female mountaineers was preparing one more ski down a high Himalayan mountain, during dangerous avalanche weather at that, and fell to her death in a crevasse. Today I listened to a BBC spot during which a female archaeologist explained that, in order to get ahead in a male dominated field, she had to risk taking her very young child on an expedition to Malawi,  Africa, where they spent weeks, surrounded by natural dangers, more than 12 hours away from the nearest hospital. We have come through a period where many people demonstrated in the streets to demand their right to gather in bars and at concerts without a mask and without being vaccinated for Covid. And many of the same people who risked illness and death for the sake of this freedom to be sick, streamed video of themselves fighting with police and storming the US Capitol. It was worth the risk to them to “live free or die,” and, of course, to keep their favorite losing candidate in the Presidency.   

Our lesson from 2 Timothy 2:8-15 says there are things worth the risk—worth suffering for. It says if we have died with Christ, we will live with him. Other translators render this, “If we die together, we will live together,” with the understanding that we do this together with Christ and  with each other.

Of course, the idea that suffering can be a good thing, and indeed can be redemptive, is a dangerous one. We must beware who advocates this, for whom, and why. Too often it is an idea invoked by the powerful to make it easier for them to oppress the weak. For people of this sort it is others who should take up the cross by serving them.

But 2 Timothy is adamant: it is suffering with Christ that is redemptive. And suffering with Christ means suffering to love somebody.

There is a wonderful little poem by an American educator named Kent M. Keith. It’s often attributed (as are many other pieces of poetry) to Mother Teresa, because it was indeed posted in one of her facilities that served the poor of India. She didn’t write it, but her lifestyle was a strong example of the virtues it endorses. Here is the version that appears in the Wikipedia bio of Mr. Keith. He titled it “The Paradoxical Commandments,” but it is known also simply as “Anyway.”

The Paradoxical Commandments

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
   Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
   Do good anyway.
 If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
   Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
   Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
   Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
   Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
   Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
   Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
   Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
   Give the world the best you have anyway.

What is worth the risk? What is taking up your cross? I think it all boils down to loving at the risk of getting your teeth kicked in. It’s loving people, making the world a better place, doing the right thing. And more than this, it’s imitating the faithful, compassionate commitment of Jesus Christ, the Lord of life.

All other risks are ulterior and ultimately life diminishing. Beware or phony preachers and politicians who profess altruistic motives on the one hand, but betray any acts of mercy or kindness for the sake of retaining power. They sacrifice compassion on the altar of power.

Only one risk is worth taking, the risk of sharing God’s love.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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