Matthew 16: 21-28
August 30, 2014
If you haven’t figured it out yet, my homilies tend to be autobiographical.
I am preaching to myself as I meditate on the text and write my homilies.
If what I have to say is not relevant for me, I assume it won’t be relevant for you either! Heaven forbid!
I am indebted to two of Cynthia Bourgeault’s texts as I have pondered today’s gospel:
The Wisdom Way of Knowing and Love is Stronger than Death.
Let’s begin with this parable from the wisdom literature. Listen with the ears of your heart!
Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land,
there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand oak tree.
Since the citizens of this country were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy;
and since they were mid-life, baby boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses.
There were seminars called “Getting All You Can Out of Your Shell.”
There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised from their original fall from the tree.
There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently “dropped out of the blue” by a passing bird.
He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns.
And crouched beneath the oak tree he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said “We…are…that!”
Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation:
“So tell us, how would we become that tree?”
“Well,” he said, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going down into the ground…and cracking open the shell.”
“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”
A while back I was telling a Jewish neighbor about today’s homily.
She asked me what the text was and I gave her some of the phrases from today’s gospel…losing your life, taking up your cross, dying.
“Well,” she said, “that is not terribly appealing.”
I could see her point.
Her response was similar to that of the acorn majority.
We don’t like to talk about suffering, death and dying.
Lose our lives? We would rather save them.
We like what is known, the unknown is scary.
Just like Peter whose response was “God forbid it Master, that must never happen to you,” we want to put our hands over our ears and scream “STOP!”
We prefer the status quo.
It is for good reason that we block out the conversations with “bad news.”
It is all too scary.
It is hard to grasp what is invisible, such as resurrection and new life.
But when we lose our lives we are not lost, we are transformed.
We leave the confining world of our hard acorn shells and become glorious oak trees!
How does it happen?
We allow ourselves to be broken open.
We let go
Let go of the acorn, let go of our lesser self,
Let go of our lesser self so that the greater Self can emerge.
We set our minds not on human things but on divine things.
The lesser self includes the ego:
Our needs, our expectations, our desires that are based on our inner image of ourselves.
It is who we become in order to survive in the world. It’s formation begins the moment we are born.
We all have egos. But of course, it is easier to see how it works in others rather than ourselves.
My sister is an architect. I just spent a wonderful week and a half with her. In many ways she is a mirror image of myself. Well, she dresses a certain way and she drives a Volvo, as do all the partners in her architectural firm. It is part of the architect self-image.
So, maybe having a Prius is part of maintaining my self-image?
The Greater self is what emerges as we die to the lesser self.
The greater Self is living the divine life.
It draws its energy from the Spiritual life world.
We become who God created us to be.
The greater Self is not destroyed by dying but is enhanced, it shines even brighter.
Shedding the lesser self and taking on the greater Self is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight or in a year.
Nor does an acorn become a towering oak tree quickly. It happens slowly, slowly with the changing of the seasons. But it does happen.
To be transformed, to move from the lesser self to the greater Self we must loosen our grip on what we hold so near and dear.
Sometimes it is slow and painful work.
Imagine your closed fist:
Sometimes it is flexible and easy to open to release what you are holding and receive something new
Other times our fists are clamped tightly shut…we don’t want to open them, we don’t want to let go of what is inside, our fingers have to be pried open. We are like a child unwilling to share a treasured matchbox toy!
How do we move from fists that are tightly closed to hands that are relaxed and open?
For Jesus it meant suffering, and death. That was the unique path he had to take. He took it freely and consciously.
The outcome? Resurrection, a deeper and more alive way of living.
Each one of us has our own unique path to take. Each of our letting go and dying is uniquely our own.
No one can do the work for us, we have to do it ourselves.
Let me tell you a bit of my own process:
I loved my work and identity as a chaplain. In my mind’s eye I was going to work as a chaplain until I was 66 or 67. And, with each paycheck I was going to save, save, save. Build that next egg!!
On Easter Sunday, 2012, I went to visit Ed Beers in the hospital, eight days before his death. I knew I wasn’t feeling well. That was the beginning of 15 months of struggle; medical leaves and surgery. When I able to work I came home exhausted.
Retire? No, I needed to keep on keeping on. For many reasons, it was too scary a thought. I had to live up to the image I had of myself and what I believed others expected of me. I couldn’t let myself or them down.
Finally, I retired. I died to the image of myself as a chaplain, a professional, a healthy fully functioning human being. I was no longer those things.
But what matters is not the retirement itself but what is happening within, the inner work that I am doing.
I trust that the greater Self is slowly emerging. I don’t want to hinder that process.
The work is on-going…there is still and will always be the daily deaths. Some deaths feel bigger than others.
With our daily dyings, the lesser self is replaced by the greater Self.
Letting go is first and foremost an inner attitude of surrender
Handing oneself over, letting go, entrusting oneself.
To what? To the mystery, to God, to something greater than ourselves, to the process, the unknown, to the divine work.
It is voluntary, an act of strength rather than weakness.
It is a heart action rather than something we do in our heads.
We can brace ourselves or soften.
When we brace ourselves, we harden and resist. We want to be in control.
Our hands are in a tight fist.
The acorn shell will never be buried in the ground.
When we soften we yield and are open. There is an alignment with our inner being. Relax into life rather than fight it. Our hands are open, the acorn shell is buried in the ground, it cracks open.
An acquaintance recently emailed me aobut a cancer diagnosis. She braces, telling me how terrible it is. She grits her teeth and endures it. She hasn’t a clue how to do anything else.
I have another friend now preparing for a series of medical procedures that could be life changing. She is able to befriend her challenges it while also being honest about her fears. She continues her daily spiritual practices. She takes care of herself with compassion. She softens.
Perhaps you have been caught in a rip tide in the ocean. Do lakes have rip tides? I think the Great Lakes do.
The tendency is to brace and swim against it.
But, what we are to do is soften, and swim with it. Then we will be safe.
All of life presents opportunities for letting go, creating and discovering an inner spaciousness. All are daily dyings are a dress rehearsal for our physical death. We are, as the Sufis put it, “dying before we die”.
Friends in their twenties rode their bikes from Philadelphia to the Northwest last year. Madison was one of their overnight stops.
Chris wrote in their blogspot a while after his stop with us about how they were always checking the weather on their I phones. But then, one day, they stopped, embraced the present moment and whatever came along.
A letting go, a softening rather than bracing for whatever weather.com told them to expect. Then they started noticing the clouds and the sky and the world around them on a deeper level. They settled in to journey across country.
For those of us who might have dreamed about biking cross country decades ago, we are bearing the fruit of our daily dyings. The acorn has become an oak tree. We provide shade and sustenance for others.
Losing our life is the crucible for transformation.
When the greater Self emerges, our love is genuine. We are no longer driven by the ego and self interests.
Our love has been refined. It mirrors divine Love.
And, in the words of the Psalm we sang earlier:
We sing a song of thanksgiving and proclaim the wonders of God.
That we live with open hands rather than clenched fists, we pray
Loving God, hear our prayer.
For the ongoing transformation of the Benedictine Women of Madison and the community of communities, we pray:
Loving God, hear our prayer.
For all who are living with injustice and crying out for justice, we pray:
Loving God, hear our prayer.
For what else shall we pray??
Jeremiah is caught in a bind. While he states that God’s word is a delight to his heart, he also acknowledges that God is like a deceitful brook. He is struggling.
Paul gives over two dozen commands so that we have no question about what genuine love is like.
And Jesus, anticipating his own suffering and death, tells his disciples if they want to be his followers they must deny themselves, take up their cross and walk in his footsteps.
If we want to save our life, we must first lose it.
Let us pray: