The ego does not yield easily: A Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Proper 21, Year B

Mark 9:38-50

September 30, 2018

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator, or “Sinai Christ,” 6th century.

The ego does not yield easily


My first week of undergrad, at Lyon College, the Residence Life Staff gathered the hundred new first-years in a science building seminar room for part of our introduction to campus life.

When we arrived, they told us they were going to bring out a few upper-classmen and have them stand in front of us.  They weren’t going to say a word, but just stand there.  They wanted us to simply observe them and then, in a group conversation, tell one another what our impressions were of them.  It had every potential to be like an episode of The Office.

So, these few students came out, in turn.  We didn’t know them, of course, because we were brand new.  I remember one guy and one girl, in particular, as they each walked into the room and stood in front of us.  I remember thinking to myself at that point how vulnerable this was for them to do this!

When the time came for group discussion, people began to share their opinions of these folks:  this one is cute, this one is sporty, this one must be in a fraternity, this one is very smart, etc.  The folks themselves simply stood still in front of us while some of the more outspoken members of my first-year class constructed entire life stories for them with shocking ease.

It was so easy for some folks to draw conclusions, not only about the person’s likes and dislikes, but also to slip into assumptions about their character: “well, they must be like this…”

In a very short time, people in the group had already sorted these upperclassmen into categories; they had already made up their mind whether or not they were going to be part of their tribe.  Even now I remember feeling that these tribalistic assumptions were going to flavor the way that we would see these upperclassmen going forward—and the way they were going to remember some in my class.

It was an effective exercise, to be sure, and it taught me about how easy it is to categorize people—and to grasp on to our assumptions of who is in and who is out, of who is worthy and who is unworthy, these tribal categories that rise up within us and constrict the way we live and move in the world.

This memory flooded back when I read the first part of today’s Gospel reading.  We imagine the disciples gathered around Jesus, when John tells him that they have seen other people “casting out demons in your name.”  But don’t worry, Jesus, we tried to stop them, because they were not part of our group.  They aren’t part of this particular group, so they shouldn’t be allowed to do this.  They aren’t part of our tribe, so they must be stopped.

I mean, we can’t just have anyone going out there willy-nilly and casting out demons, healing, and doing good in this world, can we?

Jesus tells them, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  And what does this mean?  What does this look like?  On one hand, the language of “for us” may feel tribal in itself.  We may hear this and think that “for us” means, agreeing with us, for our platform, to align themselves with our group, membership in our club.  But that is most certainly NOT what Jesus is saying here.  When Jesus says, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to soon afterward speak evil of me,” he is saying something much deeper than, perhaps, we initially think.  This phrase, “In Jesus’ name” lends itself to a rampant tribalism, I think.  I purposefully do not end my prayers with this phrase.

Jesus is not advocating for some sort of like-thinking membership in a club-type understanding of discipleship.  Jesus is inviting us to see the way that “for us” and “in my name” means aligning our hearts and our lives along the axis of the Spirit of Christ’s movement in the world.  To be pointed, we have, for too long, acted as though someone had to be a member of a certain denomination, even, in order to “get to heaven,” when Jesus himself teaches that the point of it all is to pattern our lives after his own life, as our Baptismal liturgy reminds us “to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

An enormous part of our continued struggle is that we persistently grasp onto this notion of tribal identity when Jesus himself—and the Church, as his continued Body in the world—invites us to see the call to pattern our lives by the Christian virtues, by an ethical life, a life that embodies Christ’s compassion in our entire lives.  To live as Christ lived.

These virtues are, of course, known as the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice, and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  And, we remember, of course, St. Paul’s reminder that “the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13).  I am spending a lot more time reflecting on these virtues.

So, you see, when Jesus invites his disciples to imagine what it means to be “for us,” to do things “in Jesus’ name,” this is what he is saying: discerning in someone’s life the pattern, the embodiment of Christ’s own presence in these virtues—not in some myopic, petty, childish, and tribal understanding of belonging.  Jesus wants us to understand what it really means to belong: to attune our hearts with Christ’s own heart, within a community, and embody these virtues.  This is why, you’ll remember, our Bicentennial Campaign is focusing on these crucial aspects of our lives: prayer, compassion, and belonging.

So, we have this question before us: how do we recognize the presence of Christ in another human being?

It is a crucial question for us to consider, given the current state of things in our world.  So much violence, anger, and systems of power grasping tightly in order to hold on to their power.  The ego does not yield easily.

It is helpful to remember that, in our Christian tradition, we are taught that we do not contain the mystery, the Source of existence that we choose to call “God.”  We do not have a full handle on God.  We do not—cannot—comprehend God to the extent that we, in our human condition, fully “get it” and therefore contain or control the mystery of existence.  Even the word “God” is, if we are honest, simply a placeholder for that Ultimate Reality and personal Source of all of life that holds us all every moment of our lives.

We cannot control God and, somehow, restrict access to God only to those who choose to adhere to our particular tribe’s understanding of the Great Mystery.  God is just too big to fit within any particular tradition, and that is about the most humbling truth I can think of.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  There you have it, this time-old struggle laid bare in the disciples themselves.

Ultimately, all we can do when it comes to God is to seek to attune our eyes and ears, our hearts, so that we can recognize God when God shows up.  We are called to recognize God in the world around us, in every person we meet—every person.  Every person.  It helps to keep saying this.

This is why I have on my email signature this quote from St. Augustine: “Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”

Those in the Sunday forum will remember from our tour this morning that the purpose of the Sanctuary Light that hangs above the aumbry is to remind us of God’s presence.  Our eyes and hearts are drawn here to this light, to remind us that the Light of Christ is present in our lives—in all of life.  In this case in the Blessed Sacrament that is present in our midst—but also, as Archbishop Tutu reminds us, in every person we meet.  To carry the truth of the sacramental life out, we don’t only bow or genuflect toward the altar and the Blessed Sacrament.  We also, if we “really get it,” bow to every person we meet.  We recognize the presence of Christ in them.  In this way we can learn a lot from our Buddhist and Hindu brothers and sisters.

We can only recognize God’s presence—at work in the world and, of course, here in the Church, which is Christ’s Body.  But not limited to the Church.  This is vital to understand…and humbling.  It is here that we resist the “zero-sum mentality” that plagues our world.

We attune our eyes and ears to recognize God’s presence in the world, and we are invited to share in God’s dream and vision for reconciliation and wholeness.

I give thanks for Thomas Keating’s reflection on the way our ego resists yielding, on the way we over-rely on our impulse to categorize, to compartmentalize people—life, really.  I keep returning to the way he describes for us the struggle we have in our over-dependence with our emotional programs for happiness: the fixation we have on superficial expressions of safety and security, affection and esteem, and power and control.  I think of all the experiences in my personal life when I realize the truth of this, and I watch the nation and world and recognize the deep pain that comes from this ego-grasping.  The ego does not yield easily.

I give thanks for Fr. Thomas’s life—and for his continued life, for his continued presence and wisdom.  And I give thanks for the continued opportunities we have, as St. Augustine says, “to restore to health the eye of the heart” so we can truly recognize God’s presence—wherever it manifests—and have the courage to take a step and follow Jesus.

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