16 Pentecost, Proper 19 – September 13, 2015
Good-byes never get easy, especially when they seem premature. So we can really appreciate Peter’s predicament that we encounter in this week’s gospel story. Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and, in doing so, he begins to tell the disciples what awaits him there. Peter cannot abide Jesus’ talk of his coming death. Taking Jesus aside, he argues with him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus doesn’t bite back his response. He scolds Peter severely. “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.”
With breathtaking speed, Peter has gone from being called a rock to a stumbling block. Jesus’ upbraiding of him seems harsh, yet the level of energy he puts into it reflects how important he considers it that Peter understand what he says. Peter, to whom he will give the power of binding and loosing, must learn to let Jesus go.
Jesus is concerned not only that Peter and his companions let him go but also that they learn to release their hold on their own selves. Turning toward the rest of the disciples, Jesus tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life,” he says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Self-denial is a tricky practice, and the Christian tradition hasn’t always done a good job of teaching it. It can be difficult, after all, to wrap our brains around the idea that self-denial doesn’t mean giving up who we are at our core, the self that God created us to be. Instead, Jesus’ words here call us to recognize and release whatever hinders us from full relationship with God and one another. Self-denial challenges us to know the stumbling blocks within our own selves. It beckons us to open ourselves to the one who is the source and creator of our deepest self. And self-denial compels us to ask ourselves, “What are the actions, what is the way of being, that will leave the greatest amount of room for God’s love, grace, and compassion to move in and through me?”
Here’s the thing: we tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out that life is like love, it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have. In fact – and as first time parents experience profoundly – only when you love others do you most understand what love really is. Likewise, only when you give away your life for the sake of others do you discover it. Somehow, in thinking about how to fulfill others needs your own deepest needs are met. Call this the mystery of life and the key to the kingdom of God.
So…“What are the actions, what is the way of being, that will leave the greatest amount of room for God’s love, grace, and compassion to move in and through me?” The answer to that question won’t be the same for everyone. That’s another thing that has made self-denial so tricky in the Christian tradition. A single form of self-denial won’t fit for all, and one of the greatest ways we can harm ourselves and others is to follow a path that’s not meant for us.
In Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Macarius tells a story of meeting two monks, quite naked, who have spent forty years on a tiny island in a sheet of water where the animals of the desert come to drink. At first Macarius thinks the men are spirits, so strange is their presence there. Learning that they are monks of flesh and blood, he asks them, “When the winter comes are you not frozen? And when the heat comes do not your bodies burn?” They tell him, “It is God who has made this way of life for us. We do not freeze in winter, and the summer does us no harm.”
It is God who has made this way of life for us. They know that their way is not for all monks, just as Macarius’s way is not the path that God has made for them.
Jesus tells the disciples, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross.” He doesn’t say that his followers should take up the cross that will be his own to bear, or that we should carry a cross that someone else has forced upon us. Rather, Jesus compels us to find the particular path that will enable us to do the work of giving up all that separates us from God, from one another, and from our deepest selves. As Peter learned, this includes releasing our desire to dictate the actions of others in ways we are not meant to do, and letting go of our attachment to outcomes that lie beyond our control. “To have without holding,” poet Marge Piercy puts it. In one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual path, it’s this kind of denial—this kind of detachment—that makes way for our deepest connections.
Christ calls each of us to a path that enables us to find and follow the presence of the holy in the midst of being human, not in spite of being human. The God who became incarnate and wore flesh beckons us to go into the depths of our humanity, to meet the God who dwells there, and to reckon with all that would keep us from relationship with that God.
Following Jesus and denying ourselves doesn’t mean giving up our humanness; rather, it means learning to see what it is within our humanity that hinders us from God, and letting that go. It means not clinging to our human desires at the expense of seeking to know God’s desires for our human lives. It means finding the path that will best enable us, in all the particularities and peculiarities of our lives, to find that intersection—that crossing, that cross that Christ invites us to take up—where the human and the divine meet in fullness.
So, where is that intersection for you? Have you found a way, a path, a practice that frees you to find the divine in the particularities of human living? What is your mind set on these days? What are you attached to just now? How do you know when a treasured expectation, desire, or relationship has become a stumbling block? Who or what helps you recognize these blocks? What might you build from them? Can you imagine what lies beyond them?
In your loving and letting go, may you find the way of life that God has made for you. Blessings on the journey. Amen. (this homily is based on the writings of Jan Richardson – The Painted Prayerbook.)