St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, 31 August 2014Exodus 3: 1-15; Romans 12: 9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28
Our lections this week offer some juicy selections for preachers. There’s the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in which we hear the enigmatic Name of God, “I AM.” There’s the dissonant passage from Romans where St. Paul talks about heaping burning coals upon the heads of our enemies by feeding them when they’re hungry and giving them a drink when they’re thirsty. And, of course, there’s the abrupt about-face for poor Peter, who last week was effectively enthroned as the first pope and today gets called “Satan” for trying to speak some sense into Jesus.
I happen to think that the devil might be involved in arranging the readings for today to fall on Labor Day Weekend when folks are out of town and away from church, because there’s a portion of today’s Gospel that requires the Church’s utmost attention. This portion consists of one verse, and it’s the only bit from today’s Gospel that appears in all four of the canonical Gospels. More than that, it appears six times total in various places throughout the Gospels, an indication, through the lens of biblical criticism, that it is a very important teaching, indeed.
Listen to how it appears in our Gospel reading for today:
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Does “saving to lose and losing to find” refer to the experience of martyrdom and the afterlife? This meaning of the teaching is especially poignant today in this time of great suffering and death among the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Yes, for those who face the choice from the sharp end of a sword to live or die for the sake of their identity as Christians, this teaching rings true.
But might “saving to lose and losing to find” also refer to the inner conflict between the false self and the true self within every human being? To those who have engaged in spiritual and psychological self-reflection, this teaching gives a powerful description of awakening to our true motives and to our deeply engrained habits of thought and emotion. Yes, when we realize that to find our true self we must lose our attachments to the things that comprise our false self, this teaching rings true.
I think we can take it in yet one more direction. Yes, this teaching refers to martyrdom and the afterlife; yes, this teaching sheds light on the relationship between the false self and the true self; and, I believe, it also points to a basic truth that undergirds all Creation. “Saving to lose and losing to find” is built into the very nature of things. As stated in The Interpreter’s Bible commentary:
This truth is cosmic truth. It is true of health: health fussily safeguarded becomes hypochondria, but health expended in energy may grow. It is true of harvest: the seed must die to live. It is true of friendship: a [human being] enjoys no friends until s/he becomes a friend. It is true of a nation: its good is found only as it forgets its good to serve the world. This is not pious advice, still less a pulpit platitude: it is axiom of the soul and the will of God from the “foundation of the world.” 1
The earliest Christian communities used the Greek word kenosis to describe this truth. Kenosis means, “to empty,” which in its New Testament use connotes divesting of one mode of being in order to allow for new arisings into new modes of being. We see it played out in the first pages of the Bible as God divests God’s self of transcendence and intangibility and voices into being the immanent and tangible Cosmos. We see it in today’s Hebrew Scripture where Moses is called to divest himself of an assumed identity as an exile shepherd so that he could rise to his place at the head of the Exodus. We see it in the young, poor Miriam of Nazareth who by answering the angel’s announcement with her brave, “Here am I,” divested herself of her identity as a “good daughter” and as a “good fiancé” so that she could rise to her place as the God-bearer, the Theotokos. And nowhere do we have a more perfect example than
in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ in Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. 2
So, if “saving to lose and losing to find” is built into the very nature of things and has been at work, since the beginning, moving Creation forward into new modes of being, how might we take this truth to be more than “pious advice” or just another “pulpit platitude?” Might we, as the Church, be bold enough to divest ourselves of our own familiar and beloved modes of being so that new and creative possibilities can arise in and through us? Might we be as brave as a fourteen year-old peasant girl to bear into the world what we cannot possibly imagine? Might we be as audacious as an exiled shepherd to walk into a vast uncertainty with nothing but the voice of an ancient promise as our guide? I offer that our answers to these questions amount to the difference between losing our life and finding it.
1. Walter Russell Bowie, et al., “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exposition,” in Matthew; Mark, vol. VII of The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952).
2. Philippians 2: 5b-11