16 Pentecost: From A to B (or dying again, and again, and again…)

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There is something about September,
even when it has been years since you were
in school or had kids in school, that is so fresh.

To me September feels more like the New Year
than January 1…or Advent 1 for that matter.

I don’t know how to launch into this gracefully,
so here goes: I know we all think we are special.
I don’t know if that is a Western thing,
or an American thing,
or a human thing,
but we all think we are special —
even if we think we are a terrible person
we think we are an especially terrible person.

Whether you are unemployed at the moment
or a corporate executive;
whether you are a teacher of children
or a child of teachers;
whether you are of Italian ancestry
or your genes are rooted in Tanzania;
whether you eat sushi from expensive restaurants
or Mac ‘N Cheese from a box;
we are all on our way
from A to B
and there is only one way to get there.

Now we all have different ideas
and names
for “A” and “B.”
And that is what this sermon is about –
indeed, that is what today’s Gospel is about
and what religion is all about
not to put too fine a point on it.

When we hear stuff like Jesus predicting
he will be rejected and killed and suffer,
and that he supposedly wants us to do the same,
that is,
deny ourselves,
find a cross, and
follow him into oblivion,
that is the A to B path
being recommended by the gospels.

Now let me add a caveat
included in Marcus Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time.”
He tells of being at a Christian seminary somewhere
when a guest speaker, a Hindu,
offered an interesting response
to such gospel language.
In particular, it was to Jesus purportedly declaring
that HE is
“the only way
and the only truth
and the only life.”

“It is absolutely true” the Hindu said,
“that Jesus is the only way.
And that way – of dying to an old way of being
and being born into a new way of being –
is known in all of the religions of the world.”

You see, it is a universal A to B.

It is an example of Jesus’ abundant reversal sayings
that are rough paradoxical wisdom
that every one of us knows from experience,
but which we would rather not know
and look away from.

Dying to an old way of being
and being born into a new way of being
is a universal human wisdom
that is echoed in particular
at the heart of the Christian Gospel.

But please, let’s not be literal-minded.
Just because the text says, “take up your cross
and follow me”
does not mean
we have to go looking for ways
to be persecuted.
And most especially
it does not mean the myriad
assortment of pain and suffering
we all experience – as if the cross
is a symbol of random tragedy.

This saying gets bastardized
and trivialized
when we talk about our arthritis
as a cross we have to bear.
Or our domestic partner’s slovenly habits
as our cross to bear.
Or our children’s discipline problem’s
as our cross to bear.
Or any one of the standard and normal
difficulties that we humans encounter
in the course of our every day lives.

Dying to an old way of being
and being born into a new way of being
is about choice.
It is about choices we have the opportunity to make
that subvert the way the world is organized
and which helps the transformation of the old order
to a new place.

Whether it is our own resistance to being transformed,
or the resistance of those with power
who use that power to repress justice,
dying to an old way of being
and being born into a new way of being,
is about becoming agents
of transformation.

The cross we have to bear
is not about our personal pain and suffering,
it is about our willingness
to become agents of personal
and social transformation.

Please allow me to repeat that,
because it is so counter-cultural:
The cross we have to bear
is not about our personal pain and suffering,
it is about our willingness
to become agents of personal
and social transformation.

It is about our willingness
to become midwives of death
and the mothers of new birth.

Peter’s horrified reaction to Jesus’ A to B, is typical.
We want to be comforted.
We want some assurance
that all this effort will give us some safety
and some personal protection.
We want our religion
and our god
and our church to calm our fears,
cradle our pain,
caress our grief,
erase our scars,
forgive our crimes,
heal our remorse,
and generally make us feel better.

Peter’s response is our response:
“Hey, man, what are you talking about?”

But the stunning wisdom we behold
underneath this ugly text,
tells us that the God
who invites us to die to the old —
an old way that is keeping us from being transformed into the new —
is not the least bit deterred by our fear,
or our pain,
or our anxiety
or even our death.

If I am even close to understanding this text,
then the God who we come to worship —
while not desiring our suffering
or encouraging our pain —
does not consider they are a barrier to our efforts
to bring justice into life.

I don’t mean to over-emphasize this point here,
but it does seem kind of important.

Most of the prayers I offer to God,
are petitions for God to intervene somehow
on behalf of other people
or myself,
and for the relief of our pain and suffering.
But I get the distinct feeling
from this very core gospel text,
that such things
are not really at the heart of God’s concern.
Rather, that in giving birth
labor is expected
and pain
has a function in delivery.

If I listen to this wisdom,
and don’t get angry because I don’t like it —
which I don’t — then what I hear
is that much of our pain
and much of our suffering
is unfortunate
but a natural course of events.

This excludes, of course, the pain
and suffering we inflict upon one another.

If I am hearing this wisdom right,
then I can imagine God saying to me:
“Cam, I feel your pain, I really do,
but your pain is beside the point.”

”Listen, I hear your fear,
and I know, I really know,
that fear is difficult to move beyond,
but that is your task.”

”I know you hurt, Cam,
and I know, because I hurt too,
that it gets hard to see beyond your own needs,
but that is what you need to do.”

“Cam, I know you are very sad
at the loss of so much which was familiar to you,
and I really do know
what grief and sorrow feel like,
but don’t use that to hold back the tide
of transformation
which is something I have set in motion.”

“Remember Cam, I have searched you out
and known you…
I really have
and I really do.

So you need to know
that your life is found in death,
and that all those things you cling to
need to be let go of.
And you need to risk the death
of what you care about
in order to gain the life you imagine.”

That is just my imagination:
what I imagine God would say to me
in a way I could understand.
Inside this ugly text of the gospel,
is a stunningly beautiful wisdom:

To be transformed
and be born into a new way of being
we have to die to our current way of being.

If you don’t like this painful wisdom
seek not the Buddha,
for he will tell you that
before enlightenment
much death comes first.

Seek not an escape from this wisdom
through Hinduism,
because the cycle of life is an endless dying
to the old in search of the new.

Seek not an escape from this wisdom
through Islam, for death is the doorway to relief.

Seek not even the science of Physics
for it will tell you
that energy is transformed through death –
over and over and over again.

In fact, I suspect this wisdom
is what we are looking for in coming here.
Not because we cherish suffering.

Not because we necessarily believe Jesus
died for our sins.
But because intuitively,
every one of us knows
that there is only one way
to get from who we are at this moment
to the person we have always wanted to become.

That way,
in one way or another,
includes a death.
Not a physical death
but a letting-go-death of the things
we hold onto that keep us from transformation.

I don’t know what that is for you —
it could be an obsession with power
dependence on alcohol
drivenness for beauty
an endless lust for pleasure
a bottomless hunger for success
a penchant for absolute security
even the toxic nectar of resentment —
but to the extent that they keep us from being midwives of justice,
and hold us back
from a personal transformation
that has called to us through the years,
is the extent
of the death that awaits us.

This ancient and homely story
we tell over and over and over again
through the centuries,
is a metaphor for the wisdom
that aches inside us all.
It is universal.
It is the way from A to B.