Die Before You Die: A Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Proper 28, Year B

Mark 13:1-8

November 18, 2018

 

Die Before You Die

Not one stone will be left here upon another.  All will be thrown down.

Years ago, not long after I was ordained a priest, my uncle came to Atlanta with his church on a trip.  Lisa and I loaded Evelyn up in our car and drove down near Peoplestown to pick him up for a visit.  We only had a short time, and I wanted to share a little of our life with him.

I was a bit nervous when we pulled up, because I had on my clericals, and it was the first time he had seen me dressed that way.  I remember feeling that I wanted him to experience me here, our life now.

We drove up Peachtree Street to the Cathedral, because I thought that would be a good place to walk and talk.  I wanted to show him more about the Church, and that is, if you will, “home base” in many ways.

Lisa and Evelyn stayed on the playground while he and I walked down the main corridor toward the nave.  It really is one of my favorite places, and I was glad to be able to show it to him.  We talked back and forth about things, the family, etc.

I took him into the nave and smiled when his eyes got big.  We walked slowly down the main aisle until we reached the chancel steps.  I pointed to show him the altar, where the choir would sit, and the cathedra-the chair where the bishop sits.  I pointed around and showed him the stained glass, the great rose window, and the arches.  I told him about the bell in the tower.

He seemed receptive, although it was a bit odd for him.  After I did my grand presentation, there was a pause in the conversation at which point he looked at me and said, “I have a question I want to ask you.  I didn’t come here with the family’s questions, but we have been wondering.  It is alright if you say ‘no.’”

“Of course,” I said. “You can ask me anything.”

“Do you believe in Jesus?  Does your Church believe in Jesus?”

[Silence] “I’m sorry?” I said.

“Do you all believe in Jesus, that Jesus died to save your sins?”

And at that moment, all the beautiful, well-placed stones of the edifice I had constructed tumbled down around my feet.  I felt punched in the stomach.  Misunderstood.  Angry.  Confused.

In other words, it was a time and space ripe for spiritual growth and transformation—if I could learn from it.

With a bit of distance—and deep soul work with my spiritual director—I came to see the way my own pride had constructed the entire situation.

See, I had intentionally taken him there—to that place of beautiful stones—to impress him.  While I was genuinely excited to show him that space and share a glimpse of my life—so different than the way I was raised—if I had been honest and more aware, I would have seen my ego hard at work.

My own grasping for affection and esteem had guided my shallow self to assert.  The very fact that I felt like I wanted to take him to “home base” when he had never before experienced anything like this, versus taking him to a coffee shop to have a heart-to-heart tells me something.  I had constructed this scenario, stacked the stones together if you will, and in that moment there on the chancel steps, those stones came tumbling down.

Not one stone will be left here upon another.  All will be thrown down. 

Perhaps we can be aware that this Gospel reading is not so much about tearing down physical buildings as it is about tearing down those edifices of the ego that we construct in order to protect ourselves, to grasp onto power and control.

What edifices can you discern in your life?  How do we construct walls to keep any discomfort away?  How do we fortify ourselves in our own complacency so that we retain that semblance of security in our own limited awareness?

Those stones of self-obsession, of self-aggrandizement, stones of ego.  If we’re honest, maybe we’re more comfortable with tearing down the buildings than with dealing with these spiritual dynamics within our own hearts!

Not one of these stones will be left upon another.  All will be thrown down.

This time of the Church’s year reminds us that we celebrate Jesus, devote ourselves to a Jesus who is Christ the King.  Christ is King, meaning of course that we are not.

We are limited, frail, earth creatures who have—for some reason—been invited by God to share in the Divine Life.  To take our place, to participate in God’s mission, to hold our post, as Cynthia says.

This Divine participation is the purpose of our existence.  Nothing else.

People may think that the lectionary assigns these texts because it is “Stewardship season” and these texts remind us about our money and possessions.  These are not “stewardship texts.”  That is the wrong way to think about it.

We have these readings because we need to be reminded that all our lives are dependent on and subject to the presence and purpose of God.  The texts are not about money.  They are about Jesus, Christ the King.  And so they are about us, about us finding our right size, having the right perspective.

And here is the deeper truth: finding our right size means that we are called to die to ourselves.  To die before we die.  That is the deep truth of the Christian faith, the heart of our tradition.  We resist it, construct other focus points, deflect our attention, but there it is, in the person of Jesus Himself: we are called to die to ourselves, to participate in Jesus’ own death and burial, so that we can be reborn.

When we look at the Gospel text today we see it right in front of our eyes.  We have an existence, a present life.  And we hear Jesus say that not one stone will be left upon another.  And then, the last word is—of all things—about birthpangs.  These birthpangs, with that word used to describe an experience that has sorrow flavored with promise, pain infused with hope.

So, we have existence and breaking down and building anew.  We have construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction.  We have life, death, and rebirth.

Such is the call on our lives, my friends.  It is our Baptismal identity.  To share in the life and death and burial of Jesus himself—take His life into ourselves, to pattern our lives on His life.

Perhaps there is a part of you that is thinking, “I don’t know about this dying.   Is this really what Jesus is teaching?”  Yes, it is.

Not one of these stones will be left upon another.  All will be torn down.

We can gain a better insight by rooting ourselves in the contemplative tradition.  One of my dear teachers, Fr. Laurance Freeman, tells us that the word ‘contemplation’ shows us the dynamic in our own lives.  The word itself pertains to that space, water or air, a location, in which an augur or priest would discern the will of the divine.  It was a space in which rituals were done, prayers were offered.  But look deeper and we see that there are two levels to this reality: one level are the frameworks we construct.   We build structures in these spaces in order to support our worship, our hopes and dreams.[1]  These structures are mortal, limited.  These change (like the Book of Common Prayer take note).  They are subject to the laws of change.  But—and here is where we learn a great deal—the space itself and the reality we are drawn to is eternal.

Con-templus, alongside or pertaining to the temple, or worship of God.  Our own structures provide the means to support our worship of God, but we cannot confuse them with the eternal itself.

This is why we say that the heart of the tradition—of our practice—is to die before we die, because we recognize our own impulse to confuse our agendas with God’s purposes.

Christ is King, we are not.

I love how Phileena Heuertz describes this dynamic in her new book Mindful Silence.  She will be with us on January 12 and 13 for a retreat and to preach on that Sunday.  Here are her words:

Contemplative spirituality is an invitation to wake up and die so that we can truly live.  Contemplative prayer is for courageous, devoted seekers.  It facilitates personal transformation for a world in need of healing love.  Contemplative spirituality supports the way of following Jesus, which necessitates dying to self or emptying self to make room for the all-encompassing presence of God (Philippians 2).  But we are reluctant to choose this road less traveled.  It is easier to walk through life asleep.

“Wake up and die,” Phileena says, “so that we can truly live.”

Tear down the walls of our egoic grasping, of our urge to impress and control.  To gain and hold power.  Die before we die.  Take up your cross, Jesus says.  It turns out he wasn’t kidding around.

Now, here’s the pastoral turn for me: This is hard spiritual work.  Cynthia and I have been texting while she and Jack are in Greece, and we have taken the time to be honest about what we hear, what we struggle with, what we see, what we hope for, and honestly what we fear.  Our community is strong, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle—deeply.  The truth of Jesus’ message to die before you die carries enormous weight.  Being a Christian, it turns out, is hard work!

And we do this together, as a community.  As a Body.  So, here is what I want to share with you, and invite you to share with me and one another.  The spiritual work we are called to do demands support and space and time.  It has become clear to me that I can offer that even more intentionally here.  Beginning the first week of December, I will be in the chapel from 11:30 to 12:30 Monday through Thursday.  I will work from there, praying and writing cards, sending texts even, to our community.  I will be available.  I will be praying, because that is the heart of my vocation here.  And, I will even “stream” this on Facebook some, so that if you are at your desk, you can simply click on and join with me, take a few minutes out to breathe—to practice dying, if you will.

In the back of the pews, there are pieces of paper there.  I invite you this morning to write down what you would appreciate having support with.  It can just be a word.  And, when you come up for Communion, simply place it in this vase.  Put your name, don’t put your name, doesn’t matter.  I will take all these and hold them alongside you.

Given what we are all facing, I can’t afford not to pray for an hour a day.  Neither can you.

        Not one of these stones will be left upon another. All will be torn down. 

“Wake up and die, so that we can truly live.”

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

[1] Fr. Laurence Freeman reflected on the dynamics of contemplation in the 2018 John Main Seminar with the World Community for Christian Meditation, held in Bruges, Belgium.  The theme was “A Contemplative Response to the Crisis of Change.” The video is found here: http://www.wccm.org/content/john-main-seminar-2018-videos-talks-are-now-available

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: