And one thing I’ve thought about now and then, ever since I was little, was how brave I might be in really extraordinary situations.
I’ve thought about how I would handle myself if I were a soldier at war. Would I be able to run into danger, to charge that hill with my comrades, or would my courage fail when it counted most?
When I was younger, I’d imagine sometimes what it would have been like if I’d lived in the nineteenth century and gotten married and had children but lost my wife in childbirth. If I’d suffered that kind of tragedy, what kind of man would I be? Would I be tough and stoic enough, or have enough help to find my way forward, or would I be consumed by my own sadness?
I didn’t grow up in a particularly tough neighborhood, so I didn’t get into many fights as a kid, but I’ve wondered how I’d handle myself if I were jumped. When my kids were young, and I used to run hard at night after they were in bed, I’d sometimes train my mind for this while I was training my body as a runner. What would I do if an attacker jumped me? How would I handle myself? Would I be brave?
I’ll acknowledge what I know you’re thinking right now – this is a little weird. It is. But here’s the weirder thing.
All this imaginary bravery for difficult situations I’ll never see hasn’t necessarily translated into the actual kind of bravery I need for my real, everyday life.
Say, for instance, like in owning a home. I have the extraordinary blessing or fortune or privilege – whatever you want to call it – of owning a home. But I have got to be one of the world’s worst home owners. My wife Grace gardens and beautifies and she fixes things when they break, but when something falls onto my shoulders, it just doesn’t happen. Or it happens years later than it’s supposed to, or just half done.
Some of this is busy-ness, some of it my ADHD, some probably general laziness, but it’s also that fixing and improving things scares me. I usually don’t know how to do it, I think I can’t learn, and I don’t want to ask for help.
See, like you, I expect, I have tasks I don’t want to deal with and people I don’t want to talk to because they stress me out or tap into my insecurities and fears.
Dream as I might about being brave when someone’s life is on the line, sometimes I’m short on the everyday bravery that I need to power a better life.
We’ve been talking the past few weeks about the Jesus model for everyday interactions. Two weeks ago, I talked about being kind as we welcome God’s deep kindness for us. And last week, our pastor Lydia talked about being fully present, with the God who is with us in our past, present, and future.
And today I want to look at bravery, which isn’t really a third quality of interactions, it’s more like the courage to be kind and present at a different level, even when there’s risk involved.
We’ll start by taking a look at Jesus, who strikes me as the bravest person who ever lived.
The Bravery of Jesus
Of course, Jesus was brave in the big, extraordinary ways at his death, but as I read the gospels that tell his life story, I’m equally moved by his day to day bravery throughout his life.
Let’s look briefly at just three of the times when Jesus risked something to be present and kind and truthful to what he knew to be important.
In the first one, Jesus risks his reputation. The scene starts by telling us that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Which isn’t true, really. Jesus didn’t have to do anything, and he didn’t have to travel through this section of Northern Palestine that Jews like him normally avoided. America, and Boston in particular, has our history of beltway highways and segregated housing and all kinds of zoning laws that were designed to keep Whiter and wealthier people away from contact with everyone else. The first century wasn’t as advanced with their fear and separation, but Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries not only avoided Samaritan people, but avoided the neighborhoods where they were likely to run across them.
Maybe this is why Jesus had to go through Samaria. Because avoiding people isn’t his way. Here he is.
John 4:4-9 (NRSV)
4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
It’s interesting to me to just read the start of this scene. It’s become a famous Bible encounter by this point, so it’s easy to miss where it starts, which is Jesus put in what most people in his shoes would have found an uncomfortable situation.
Jesus is hot and tired from an hours-long walk, and so when his students head into town to find lunch, he sits to take a rest by himself. When he’s approached by a stranger, a stranger that our text points out, Jesus would have two reasons to have nothing to do with her.
But Jesus pushes past that and starts a conversation – could I have a drink? – a conversation that goes to the most interesting places.
Encounters with strangers can be awkward. We don’t know who they are, and so we don’t know what to say, and at least in this part of the world, it can feel like we’re breaking some kind of weird unspoken contract of mutual public coldness if we engage with a stranger.
You know what, though, I was listening to a report on a study about social connectedness. The premise was that most of us are lonelier than we wish we were, and the researchers wondered what effect it would have for people to experience more social connection throughout the day. So they had a control group that ignored strangers or kept interactions with them as short as possible, as we do, and another group that were asked to start conversations with strangers whenever possible.
And they found – one – that the difficulty wasn’t with other people, it was with the subjects. Most of the strangers were actually happy to talk. But the person in the study had to overcome their own shyness or discomfort to make a comment or ask a question. Starting the conversation was the hard part. Keeping it going was easy. But the second thing they found was that even though this was hard, people really liked doing it afterwards. The experience had a very positive effect.
Maybe Jesus knew this – that he’d be a happier man if he connected with people. Or maybe he didn’t care about social convention and reputation. Or – and I think this is true – maybe Jesus had the same hesitations and shyness and awkwardness that we all do, and maybe when that woman approached, the first thought that went through his head was his dad’s voice from when he was a kid that good Jewish men don’t talk to women alone and maybe the second thought that went through his head was – Oo, she’s a Samaritan – and some kind of awful negative bias about Samaritans flashed across his brain. But then, Jesus thought, I’m not going to live in a world where this disconnects us. I’m going to present and kind. I’m going to talk to this stranger, and see what good comes out of it. Let’s give it a try.
And that’s brave.
If we’ve been reading John, this won’t surprise us, because Jesus has proven himself to be pretty darn brave already.
Two chapters earlier, Jesus is visiting the temple in the city of Jerusalem. It’s holiday time, when Jesus was used to heading to the city to worship. But this year, when he got to the temple, his eyes were clearer, and he didn’t like what he saw.
John 2:13-15 (NRSV)
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
This wasn’t just Jesus risking his reputation, but risking his life.
Now there are a number of theories as to why Jesus does this. Some people think Jesus was upset by the crass commercialism of the scene, that this holy place for worship is starting to feel like a mall. Some people think Jesus is deliberately trying to stir up a conversation about what it means to know God at all, that the sacrificial system of the temple has seen its day, and God wanted a new way, a more internal, spiritual mode of connecting with God going forward. Other accounts of this scene imply that Jesus was troubled by the injustice of the temple, that the outer court, which was the only place Gentiles – non-Jews, and in some cases women, even Jewish women, could worship – that this outer court was so filled with the commercial transactions of the merchandise for worship, that everyone other than Jewish men were being denied their opportunity to encounter God.
But I’ll tell you what, regardless of why Jesus did what he did, most recently, I’ve been struck by how he did it.
I read this passage recently using a method called lectio divina. Lectio divina just means divine reading, or spiritual reading. It’s a mode of reading the Bible people have been using for over a thousand years, where you read a short passage, slowly, often more than once, and notice how it speaks to you. Chew it over for a while and observe your response. See where that takes you. Be open to the possibility that this is the Spirit of God speaking to you through what you read.
So I was doing that practice with this text and what struck me was the single phrase: making a whip of cords.
I pictured Jesus sitting in the corner with his craft project, and I was like how would one do that? I just told you at the top, I can’t make or build anything, so I was kind of mystified, like this is some kind of McGyver moment with Jesus, where he’s making a whip out of found materials. But I give that to Jesus, because he was trained as a carpenter, a furniture-maker, he knows how to make things. But the thing I thought was that this must take a while, to make a whip. It’s not a thing you do in a minute or two’s fit of rage. This takes steady consideration, to sit down for minutes, maybe hours, to build that whip before you used it.
And I thought, this is brave. Because to explode in anger at something that ticks you off – that’s not brave, that’s just impulsive, or rude or violent. But to watch carefully, slowly, and to observe an injustice, and to say to yourself, I need to disrupt this activity, and to take your time to figure out how to do that, and to devise the plan, and then to act boldly – at risk to your own life. Jesus could have been arrested and killed, and doing this is part of why he eventually was. Well, this is exceedingly brave.
One more scene, though, because I want us to see that Jesus wasn’t just brave with strangers and public injustice. Jesus was brave with the people closest to him as well. Jesus was brave when he needed to be with his friends too.
Last scene for the day:
Matthew 16:21-26 (NRSV)
21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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?
Whoa, Jesus! This gets intense kind of quickly, doesn’t it? I mean listen to Peter: God forbid, Jesus. This must never happen to you.
That sounds awful, Jesus. No, no, no, that’s not going to happen. It’s alright.
This is how friends talk. This is what friends do. They cheer us up when we say gloomy things. They put a more positive spin on it.
But when Peter does this, Jesus turns and calls his friend Satan, and goes into this whole intense moment about the bravery it takes for anyone to follow Jesus.
I’ve got to move toward wrapping up, so we can’t look at every angle on this important moment, but for now, I just want to notice that real friends, Jesus-style, don’t just smooth things over. They don’t just go for easy.
They speak their truth. They stay authentic, even when that risks conflict, even when that risks the relationship itself.
For Jesus, this wasn’t a small thing. This was the center of his life mission and destiny that he was talking about. And Peter’s like, come on Jesus, that’s not you. And Jesus actually finds this tempting. That’s what Satan means – the accuser, or the tempter. That’s what a stumbling block means – an innocent looking thing that can trip you up and cause you great harm. Jesus would probably love the easy life.
That’s the great insight of that novel by Nikos Kazantnakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, that Martin Scorcese turned into a film. The idea was that Jesus may have been tempted again and again to be a wise person who lived the easy life. So when that harm to him and his cause comes from a friend, Jesus knows that to really be kind and present, in a way that’s authentic to his truth, is not to brush it over. It’s to speak his truth, even though it stirs the pot. Even though it risks the friendship.
So speak his truth he does.
I saw a friend of mine doing this recently and it moved me.
Given the circumstances of my life, I’ve known a lot of teenagers over the year, and now and then those people return in some form when they’re all grown up, and you get to talk.
And a while back, one of these all grown up teens and I met up for coffee – which by itself, by the way, is an awesome thing, to meet up for coffee with someone you knew when they were 12 or 13. This is a good reason to put yourself in a position to know kids and then to stick around so you can know them when they grow up. Side note: that’s just really rewarding.
But then in this case, this person wanted to show me a letter they had written before they sent it. Because they were wondering if it was a good idea.
And as we talked about the letter, I learned that a coach in this person’s life had really done them harm. It wasn’t the coach was overtly abusive or did anything they’d lose their job over. It’s just that the whole premise of the relationship and been patronizing and demeaning. It had driven this person off the team that had been important to them. It had lodged some hurt inside of them too.
And they had been wondering what to do about that now that they were out of the situation.
And I’m thinking to myself, well, you’re out of the situation. That’s a win. You get to move on and never talk to this person again. Never have anything to do with them. Which is great, right?
This is my preferred strategy for people I find difficult. To minimize my contact with them, and to doubt that they could ever really change, because people tend to be stuck in their ways.
But while I’m thinking this, my friend is saying, the thing is there are more people who are going to have my experience after me, and I feel like I have to say something, for my own sake but also because maybe my coach will listen. Maybe they can change their mind a little.
And I thought to myself, wow – you are a better person than me. Because to speak the hard truth that might really benefit someone else isn’t easy.
And then I read the letter – how clear it was, but also how humble and how gracious – what a perfect example of what the Bible calls “speaking the truth in love” and I thought, wow, now you’re really a better person than me.
Because to do this is really brave, right? To not just move on from the people and situations that trouble us, but to do our best, with great love, to interrupt what’s wrong. To interject some truth spoken with great love, and see if a different story might play out. Doing this takes time and creative energy, and it risks disappointment and hurt.
But it’s also the stuff that changes lives, that changes history.
This is pretty much every famous, courageous person we admire – in our own times or in the past – saying how do I not just accept reality the way it is, but interrupt it, with truth and love?
You’ll notice I pointed out too that my friend was really humble and gracious with their words.
Because we’re in a church here. And when bravery is talked about in religious contexts, it’s usually about winning or self-justification. It’s about doing the bold, offensive thing for our faith, for our side, to show the ignorant world how wrong it is. It’s about battles for truth or territory. This is the role religion has played in wars and terrorism, it’s the role religion has played in the culture wars of our time too. And that may be its own form of bravery, but it’s not bravery Jesus-style. It is not the Jesus model of everyday interactions.
Jesus’ bravery isn’t offensive battle-making, even that whip-making temple moment, where he didn’t hurt a single person, or say anything personally demeaning or attacking at all.
No, Jesus-style bravery is presence and kindness magnified, even when it takes boldness and risk. It’s speaking our truth, but with great, great love – not just what we would call love, but what the other would actually experience as love.
It’s the courage to have conversations we’ve been avoiding, to do the hard things we and our world would be better off if we did.
This isn’t just for Jesus or for heroes of for remarkable grown-up teenagers either. It’s in reach for all of us. Let me end with two ways how.
The first thing I’d like to invite you to try is that mode of Bible reading I talked about: Practice Lection Divina in the Four Gospels.
Lectio divina again is that slow, meditative reading of the Bible where you pay attention to what’s sticking out and speaking to you. The New Testament of the Bible begins with four versions of Jesus’ life story, named for the purported authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Just pick one and start reading bits each day, and see how brave Jesus is. See how brave Jesus speaks to you. Notice how Jesus challenges, or inspires, or encourages, or provokes you.
In this five-week series, our pastor Ivy is making these little business cards you can carry around, with take-aways from the talks – one on connecting with Jesus yourself, and the other on practicing Jesus-style interaction with other people. They’re awesome, and this week’s has the Lectio Divina instructions on the first side. They’ll be in the dome art gallery on your way out.
And the second thing is simpler: Do one more hard thing.
Sometimes the hard work we need to do is what Lydia talked about so well last week, what I’ve been doing this year – facing the hard parts of our past.
Sometimes the hard thing we need to do is taking care of ourselves, asking for help, opening up and asking for the things we need to keep living, and keep growing hope.
Sometimes it’s a task we’re putting off because we’re scared or think we can’t do it, or are worried we’re going to fail.
And sometimes the hard thing is a conversation – starting to notice and be kind to strangers, interrupting a pattern of injustice that’s going on in our families or workplaces. Sometimes it’s even speaking our truth to a friend who needs to hear it, even if that risks the relationship.
That good thing you’ve been wanting to do, that hard conversation you’ve been meaning to have. Ask yourself what that is, and a take a step toward doing it today.
I gave you a four-step process that you’ll notice on the card. First, think of that good but hard thing or conversation you’ve been putting off. Then, ask Jesus to be with you. Then do the hard thing, with as much presence and kindness, and as much truth and love as you can.
And then finally, notice how you feel afterwards. What did you learn?
See, bravery isn’t a special gift that only some people have. Bravery is more like a muscle we exercise, where the more we use it, the easier it gets, or the more prepared we are to use it in hard situations.
Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer behind the Equal Justice Initiative, whose work and writing and talks have inspired so many of us, tells a story of getting to meet Rosa Parks before her death, earlier in his career, and telling her about all the work he planned to do. Legal aid for people on death row, who were unjustly convicted of crimes, or who committed their crimes but when they were profoundly mentally ill or just kids. Ending racial injustice in our country’s legal system. Helping our country come to grips with our overall legacy of racism and racial terror and violence. All of which he’s working on still, by the way.
And he told these things to Ms. Parks, and she said to him: All of this good work is going to make you tired, tired, tired. So you know what. You’re going to need to be brave, brave, brave.
Oh, so true. Sometimes we need a rest. Rest, self-care, is important to the good life. But sometimes we also need to learn to be brave. And Jesus can grow this in us.