Sermons

Sun, Feb 25, 2018

Losing to find

Series:Sermons

I sat at my desk staring at a blank computer screen.

A mild but growing sense of panic was beginning to well up inside.

It was Saturday morning...

and my sermon was not coming together.

In fact, I didn't really know where to begin.

I didn't really know what it was that I wanted to say...

let alone how I should start it...

and I felt under some pressure.

After all, I pride myself on my ability with words.

I think that I'm a pretty good preacher...

and I have something of a reputation to maintain.

Of course, I know it varies from week to week.

Sometimes the reading really lends itself to some powerful new insight...

or some punchy application.

But sometimes it doesn't--

and it's more a 'variation on a theme'--

and each week I try to do my best.

I try to produce something with which I'm happy--

something learned and insightful... 

thought provoking and stimulating...

clever and challenging... 

and, at times, even controversial.

I don't want to let anyone down.

But on Saturday, as I sat at my desk, it just wasn't happening.

I kept turning the words of the reading from Mark over and over in my head...

trying to find an angle.

I scoured the newspapers online--

nothing leapt out at me.

I dug out an old sermon that I had preached on this passage:

Alas, nothing worthwhile there.

The harder that I tried to conjure up something...

the more that I tried to force something out of the text...

the larger the block seemed to grow.

In desperation, I got up and went out into the garden...

where I noticed a few dead heads on the roses.

So I grabbed the secateurs and dispatched them...

then tidied things up a bit.

In the midst of that, a thought bubble figuratively popped open in my head:

I remembered a book that I had read back in theological college--

written in the nineteen sixties by an American Jesuit, by the name of John Powell.

In that book--

entitled, Why Am I Afraid to Love?--

he points out that the more that someone craves love...

and seeks out love...

the less lovable that that person becomes.

Ironically, the more that we seek after something...

and the more desperate that we become to attain it...

the more that it eludes us...

because we actually become closed to the experience.

And, as I pondered that some more... 

I came across a reference to something written by the psychologist, Erich Fromm...

where he suggested that there are two conflicting tendencies within the human psyche:

the first, a drive for individuality...

a drive for freedom and responsibility...

a cutting of the emotional umbilical cord to our mothers...

and a symbolic 'moving out of the womb'.

Alongside that, conversely...

there is also the symbolic drive to 'return to the womb'-

the drive away from freedom and responsibility...

and the drive towards certainty and security.

And the stronger the drive toward the latter--

toward certainty and security--

the more that we lose as fulfilled human beings...

and the more that we regress towards an infantile state.

 

"Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it".

On one level, these words of Jesus in our reading are common sense.

It's a dynamic that we have seen played out time and time again throughout human history.

We have seen people desperately trying to save their lives only to lose them:

we have seen people losing their own lives, physically in their scramble for survival-- 

as, unfortunately, has happened too often with asylum seekers in unseaworthy boats.

And we have seen people losing their lives emotionally or psychologically--

the loss of something of their essential humanity--

in their febrile efforts to save themselves...

or their imagined way of life.

But this saying of Jesus goes further than that.

The word translated, here, as "life" may refer to physical life or existence...

but it's not the most common or usual word for that.

Moreover...

it refers to that which gives life--

if you like, the essence of life...

or the quality of life...

even the personality or the sense of selfhood.

Thus, one scholar has suggested this saying could be paraphrased as:

"the more one tries to protect one's selfhood, the less a person one becomes".

And don't we see enough of that as well?

Don't we see people who become preoccupied with their emotional or psychological survival...

who have responded to the hurts and scars of a painful childhood or a broken relationship...

by erecting strong walls or defences to protect against further hurt...

only to shut themselves off from others...

from themselves...

and from life itself?

But there's even more going on here than that.

The word translated as "life" doesn't just mean physical life or existence...

and it doesn't just mean quality of life or a sense of self...

more than all of that, this word translated here as "life" means "soul".

It's the word that describes not just our essential self-

our personality or our psyche-

it's the word that describes the spiritual core of our beings...

that part of us that yearns for transcendence...

that part of us that longs to connect with the ground and source of all life.

It refers to that part of us that is reflected in that famous prayer of St. Augustine's:

"God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you".

And yet, what Jesus is saying here goes even beyond that prayer of St. Augustine's.

In essence, what Jesus is saying... 

is that the more that we try to protect the spiritual core of our being...

the more that we endanger it.

The more that we think that we have "arrived"--

spiritually speaking--

the further that we have to go.

The more that we strive for spiritual certainty...

the more that it slips from our grasp like a wisp.

The more that we dress up our spiritual experience in rigid beliefs...

or antiquated moral absolutes...

or treat religion as some safe, unyielding anchor amid the storms of life...

the more that our spirit dies.

Spiritual fulfilment is not to be found in grasping at certainty--

in any form.

Those who want to save... 

preserve...

constrain... 

concretise...

their soul...

will lose it.

They will find it diminished, even destroyed.

Conversely, those who are prepared to lose it;

those who are open to having their conceptions of God blown apart;

those willing to allow their images of Jesus to be deconstructed;

those prepared to have their understanding of the Gospel... 

and their essential spiritual beliefs...

and what it means to live as a child of God... challenged or upended...

will, eventually, find fulfilment. 

That, paradoxically, is the essence of life...

and the essence of faith.

It's only by letting go of all that we cling to...

of all that we strive after...

of all that we think we are...

that we can--

genuinely and authentically--

live;

and it's only by letting go...

that we genuinely and authentically encounter the living God.

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