ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                                   SEPTEMBER 22, 2013


Beyond My Self

1 Corinthians 2: 1- 13; Mark 8: 34 – 38


Asked to describe an experience of awe, Barry Summers wrote of being in a National forest in Denver with a storm approaching.  “Disregarding the park ranger’s advice to remain in our vehicle we went and stood out on a rock outcropping.   We could see the main thunderhead approaching from about ten miles away and thought we were safe until we looked down at our sweaters and saw the hairs were all standing straight up and slowly turning around.  We each heard a hissing sound, smelled something awful and saw the colour spectrum compress down into only pinks and reds.  We freaked out and scampered down the rocks, thanking heaven that we had escaped being struck by lightening.”  For Barry the concept of a storm didn’t mean much; thinking he was invincible nearly ended his life.  Experiencing the awesome power of electricity made him aware of both his mortality and his blessings.   St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.  People kill one another over idols.  Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”  

How many of us have experienced the grandeur of creation or the breath-taking wonder of God’s presence in worship or the miracle of forgiveness and have been emotionally overwhelmed with  awe?  Awesome signs of wonder can be like a two way mirror which we can look through into another room.  When an event or symbol is something we look through to get a glimpse of God’s nature we call this an ‘icon’.  And whenever we get a glimpse of the Holy, by contrast we also get a glimpse of our self – the earthling stuck in the mud.  When we encounter the Divine we fall to our knees recognizing both our mortality and our blessings.

An encounter with the wonder of God always points beyond; it reveals what is hidden.  The person of Jesus is our primary example of this.  Jesus’ pointed beyond himself to reveal his heavenly Father.  As Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9).   Spirituality, while needing to be incarnate in this world, points us beyond the every day material reality.  It involves a different way of seeing.  Spirituality affirms, “Yes, there is something here” and at the same time it transcends that affirmation by recognizing, “But there is more to it than meets the eye.”    If we were to see a flag moving on a pole we’d idenitify it and affirm its existence.  We’d also recognize there’s something more going on that we cannot see – there is wind, an air current, a movement which is not visible but it is real.  This invisible movement is the power that makes the flag move.  Our spirituality points beyond the ordinary, beyond possession, beyond expectation, beyond control and beyond our self to God.

When life is centred in Christ, we awaken to a “…wisdom not of this age or of the rulers of this age.” (1 Corinthians 2:6) We are given eyes to see beyond what is in front of us.  For instance: in spite of our culture’s obsession with physical beauty, when we look at a person through spiritual eyes we recognize there’s much more there.  There are talents, memories, love, losses, desires, wisdom, principles, as well as regrets and failings.  Outward beauty lasts for a time yet we have the potential to become more grace-filled as life unfolds.   It‘s similar with material possessions.  While they’re necessary for survival, the material things we possess tend also to possess us.  The more we have, the more we want.  We become tied down.  We are filled with covetousness or envious desire.  We measure our worth by our stuff.  At the time we emptied my parents’ house, I was acutely aware of how all their treasures were suddenly reduced to what they really are – objects.  One day the unwanted things I now treasure will be boxed up and sent to Goodwill.  My attachments are “vanity and a chasing after the wind.”  (Ecclesiastes)   As we enter more deeply into God’s world we find freedom from vanity, from our false “truths” and attachments.  We see what is really true and eternal and it sets us free.  A man was sitting on a street corner eating lentils, a friend who lived well by flattering the king said, “If you were more respectful to the king, you wouldn’t have to eat lentils.”  The man replied, “Learn to eat lentils and you won’t have to grovel to anyone.”   Jesus put it quite succinctly, What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” (Mark 8:36)

Unlike material possessions, spirituality cannot be measured or possessed.  We cannot possess life or joy or wisdom.    This thought was expressed at the beginning of Chief Seattle’s famous speech in 1854, “The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?”  Spiritual realities can’t be bought.  Faith, hope and love are not products we sell.  Spirituality points beyond the ways we conduct life, giving us new perceptions and reminding us we really own nothing.  As we discover that all we seek to possess belongs to God our hands open – we let go of our need to have and control so we find ourselves in a position to receive the gifts of God.  Spirituality fills us with wonder and enriches our souls.

Spiritual reality is not limited.  If one person “has spirituality” it doesn’t mean someone else can’t or that another will have less.  As Jesus told us the Kingdom of heaven expands, it multiplies.  It’s the small seed that becomes a huge tree; the little bit of yeast that leavens the dough; the seed that yields a vast harvest of grain.  If we think of School spirit or Team spirit or even the enthusiasm of a congregation we recognize that this energy doesn’t decrease as more people join in;  In fact, the more participants the greater the enjoyment of everyone.  This is the way with life in God’s realm – the more, the better.   The more people sharing their spiritual journey, the more abundant that journey becomes.  In God’s heart there’s room for all.  God is inclusive – through Jesus, God extends to everyone an invitation to new life.  God is like a parent; having more children doesn’t reduce his love for the first; the more children God has, the more love abounds.

While spirituality is beyond the ordinary, it is not flashy or spectacular.  There is a simplicity that emerges as we come closer to Christ.    Thomas Merton asked a novice in the monastery what he had learned in his first year.  He hoped to hear of moments of enlightenment or deep spiritual discoveries.  The novice replied “I learned to open and close doors.”  Now you may be thinking, “I can do that; I must be very spiritual.”  Learning to open and close doors is a simple act of being present and aware.  It’s the act of calmly attending to the things one is doing instead of running around hurriedly either slamming the door shut or leaving it hanging open.  There’s simplicity in opening and closing doors.  Sometimes we feel the truly spiritual people are the ones who hear a voice, perform miracles or suffer martyrdom.  We imagine that saints and spiritual giants don’t worry about doors. But simple acts done in the presence and service of Christ are the staples of spiritual growth.  There’s simplicity in serving others without recognition and to no personal advantage.  A constant calm and unselfish kindness in everyday life is of great value in God’s kingdom.

Spirituality moves us beyond our narrow confines and our illusion of righteousness.  Ida was an ardent teetotaller while her fiancé Carl enjoyed his wine.  Ida would marry Carl only if he gave up his wine.  “Okay,” said Carl, “We shall not have wine in our home.”  For 20 years no liquor crossed their threshold.  One day Ida said to herself, “You’re an awful prude!  For 20 years you’ve deprived this good man of his wine.”  She humbly shared her revelation with Carl confessing her self-righteous piety.  Carl smiled and said, “Okay.  On my way home this evening I’ll buy a bottle of wine and we shall celebrate.”

Spirituality calls us out beyond our self.    One almost needs to be a Zen master to understand Jesus calling, For 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.” (Mark 8: 34)  It’s a confusing statement filled with paradox.   We find our self by giving up our self, we gain freedom by serving, we achieve autonomy by letting go of our rights, we live by dying.   It’s our human tendency to take ourselves too seriously clinging to our own self-interest and selfish needs.  Jesus beckons us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (vs. 35).   We have often thought of “taking up our cross” as bearing a suffering particular to our lives; we express this by saying, “It is my cross to bear”.   In this context denying ourselves and taking up our cross is not so much a willingness to suffer stoically as the practise of letting go of any sense of entitlement.  It’s the ability to become less self-centred.  It’s a call to put others at the centre of life, to put them before ourselves.     Father Anastasius had a fine Bible worth $2000.  A visiting monk saw the book and stole it.  He went to the city to sell it for $1000.  The buyer wanted to be certain the Bible was worth that much and took it to FA who said, “It’s a fine book. At $1000 it’s a bargain.” The buyer went back to the monk and told him what FA had said.  The monk was shocked and decided not to buy the book.  He returned to FA and begged him to take it back.  FA said, “It’s my present to you.” The monk told him, “I can have no peace until I return it.”  FA received the book back into his keeping.

Spirituality moves us beyond the ordinary, beyond possession, beyond limitations, beyond, the spectacular, beyond self-righteousness, beyond our self.  When we deny ourselves and take up our cross we open the way for grace to flourish.  We become the two way mirror, the icon, which others may look through to find the awesome mystery of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Wonder makes us fall to our knees.