Give Up: It Isn't That Easy.

John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. 27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’30Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.31Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

It isn’t that easy.

How do you follow a crucified God and expect there to be no effort?

In the mid-1990s, the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn was released.  Sarandon won the Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, the spiritual director for death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet.  It was based on a true story and it showed the struggle and strain, confrontation and doubts of Sister Helen.  At the movie’s end, following the funeral of Poncelet, one of his victim’s parents says, he wishes he had Sister Helen’s faith, to which she replies, “It’s not faith.  It’s not that easy.  It’s work.”

the advent of social media allowed many of us to reconnect with others from our past.  As I reconnected through MySpace and then Facebook, with friends and schoolmates, I got comments such as, “How did you make it into ministry?,” “How did you keep your faith going?” and others.  As I thought back, I have shared that it began with picking up a little book in the back of our church at Jarvis Memorial UMC called, “The Upper Room.”  I read it everyday.  Prayed and wrote down what I thought God was speaking to me.  I had decided to follow Jesus.

I think it is a matter of choice, “do you want knowledge OF God” or “do you want to KNOW God?”  You can make a nice career or hobby out of one but the other, well, you make LIFE out of it.  It is a choice which narrows down your decisions and impacts the meaning of your world.  To chose to be friends with someone or marry someone, has long meant excluding others.  But to really KNOW God?  To be in relationship to The Divine? The Holy One?  Well then, you’ve got to Give Up.

If you’ve been with this the past few weeks, the words of John’s gospel will sound familiar I suspect.  Back on week three, we read Mark 8:31-38 and how Jesus said, “you’ve got to deny yourself! You’ve got to lose yourself!”  As we’ve seen, “GIVING UP” is a big theme for Jesus.  It seems to be very near the center of the Christian faith (and nearly any other world religion).

There is some version of this passage in all four of the Gospels.  Because it is such an important theme, it is likely Jesus preached on it on more than one occasion.  But here is bit different structure which leads me to consider what more Jesus might be saying.  It starts with these “Greeks” who want to see Jesus.  We don’t know more than that though, John doesn’t even tell us if they get to see Jesus!  Once the request comes from Philip and Andrew, Jesus breaks out into teaching.

The significant word here is “glorified.”  The root in Greek is doxa and the root of the word “doxology,” which we sing.  Like “righteousness,” it is part of the very NATURE and being of God.  It is a given, that God deserves honor, that God is full of splendor and radiance.  Say to a devout Jew in the first century that God is to be glorified, you’d likely get a “duh!”

But the New Testament and specifically Jesus’ words here in John make an additional point.  It is one which the voice from Heaven confirms -Jesus is to be glorified too.  At this time, no one has seen Jesus glorified but the voice confirms Jesus’ prayer for the Son of Man to be glorified, and the time is at hand.  And so implied, is that no one had yet truly SEEN Jesus.  

This seems to me an important aspect of the text and Jesus is trying to help us understand, “You can have knowledge of the Son of Man” OR “You can KNOW the Son of Man.”  BIG difference and if you want to KNOW the Son of Man, to be accounted with him, to be part of the Kingdom of God, to experience and see God fully glorified...You Have To Give Up.  You have to die, just like a grain of wheat; just like a seed.  It is the one death you have a choice about.
Every fall, at our home, we have these massive acorns that fall on our drive way.  I have never seen acorns this big until we moved to our current home.  We run over them with the car and the pop and crush.  I throw them down the driveway and our kitten, Zoe, chases them.  Most of them all just die with nothing to show for it.  But like wheat, if it fall INTO the earth and dies, AH-HA!  It is reborn as a tree and produces MORE acorns!

SO what is next?  Jesus points us in that very direction.  Do you love your life - your achievements, your habits and hobbies, your stuff OR do you love God?  Are you serving YOU or are you serving Jesus?  Are you serving others?  John Wesley pointed out in one of his sermons, that there is “A More Excellent Way,” but it will take effort.  On Easter Sunday, I’m beginning a new series called, “Loving Large.”  But there is no need to wait till then to start dying to self and living for Jesus

I Don't Want To Write.

This may well be one of the silliest things I have written.  I keep starting and stopping.  I’ve got journal entries and partial blog posts written only to a point and now just backing up in a folder.  I like to write but here is the truth, I don’t want to do it.  Or, maybe I do, but what I want to say I just do not want to share it with you.

I read others’ writings and thoughts.  I am torn about writing and what I want to say because, somethings do not need to be written.  Everything about my life and what my family is going through does not need to be in my blog.  It does not needed to be tweeted about and you don’t need to see my instagram and my family inside joke doesn’t need a hashtag.  

One of the best lines I’ve read recently comes from Simon Tugwell in his book “Ways of Imperfection,” where he writes, “The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong.”  That really resonates with me.  It is good spirituality for a Methodist because John Wesley called the first work of God’s grace: prevenient grace - “the grace that goes before.”  God is working for our good before we even believe in God and maybe,the first thing we need to know is what is wrong.

Wait, no, that isn’t what Tugwell said, it was, “...begin to understand…”  Maybe it is a slight slip, maybe “Freudian” because we sure seem to always want to “know” things.  We want the facts and the truth on our side and once they are there THEN we can keep things straight.

Keep telling yourself that.  Go ahead.  But it seems to me, we are always only beginning to understand just about everything.  That is especially true when we get it in our heads that the world is somehow supposed to be a certain way.  That is what I think Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham are getting at when the write,  "Much of the pain of spiritual suffering, comes from wallowing in wishes and fantasies of things being other than the way they are." (from "The Spirituality of Imperfection")

When you watch your family suffering through things you just KNOW should not be happening, that are simply NOT RIGHT, you hear a lot well meaning words and attempts to comfort which simply do not resonate.  What you are aware of is that something is WRONG, and it is wrong with all of us, it is wrong in all of us and within any number of circumstances and with the world, “but there is nothing wrong with that, because that is the nature of REALITY” (28, ibid).

Maybe this is more to do with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 where he says famously,  “But [God] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Here is the problem with dreaming of having a “first century church,” it was full of the same reality we still have - people wanting to be God and learning they are not.

It is in the wound, in the weakness where God comes and enters our lives. We are being cornered by the “Hound of Heaven” and called by the “Trumpet in Zion” to give up our claim to being the Christ and simply allow Jesus to be who He is. This is why we must, in the face of cruelty, persecution, evil and the like, we continue to offer Christ and we continue to be as Christ to those in need but we aren't THE Christ.  

I cannot see anything right about my wife’s suffering from her cancer and the effects on our family.  We don’t get to be strong, we get to give up and in giving up, we can receive the grace of beginning to understand what truly is wrong.

What Is Your Way of Life? Ancient Thoughts on a Modern Problem

A brother who followed the life of stillness in the monastery of the cave of Abba Saba came to Abba Elias and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a way of life.’  The old man said to the brother, ‘In the day of our predecessors they took great care about these three virtues: poverty, obedience and fasting.  But among monks nowadays avarice, self-confidence and great greed have taken charge.  Choose whichever you want most. (74. “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”)   

During Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are to be the common practice of the Church.  The Ash Wednesday text of Matthew 6:16, 16-21 are a reminder to us.  These words of Jesus reflect the very nature of God’s Son and the call to all who are to follow.

The ancient words of Abba Elias should be no surprise to us.  And yet, look around.  Where in the Church do we find these three virtues celebrated?  What does God expect from us after all?  How are we going to minister and reach our culture if we don’t fit in?  But the invitation of being a disciple is not about fitting in.  Could we not as easily say, “...among the [clergy/laity/Church/disciples/etc] nowadays avarice, self-confidence and great greed have taken charge” ?

In teaching on the Abbas and Ammas of the ancient deserts, Roberta Bondi notes how humility is what is “countercultural” in their day.  I cannot help but think it remains true in this day!  Dr. Bondi writes, “Part of the power of humility comes from its letting go of the need to look good in the eyes of ourselves or of others (55, “To Love As God Loves”).”  There is nothing easy about humility but it is precisely what Abba Elias is pointing at when he speaks of the three virtues.  And while there are plenty of teaching of the desert which are applicable only realistically to monks, this, I do not see as one of them.  

In his sermon on the “Circumcision of the Heart,” John Wesley echoes the abbas and ammas, that “...Circumcision of the heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity.  Humility, a right judgement of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our own perfections…” And he continues, “...we are not sufficient of ourselves to help ourselves; that, without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but add sin to sin…(165, “Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons,” Schmul Co.).  It is no coincidence, that this sermon follows Wesley’s sermon on “The Means of Grace,” where he focuses on some (though not all) the means of grace which allow the Spirit to work freely in us.  Those very same virtues of Abba Elias, they are found as well in Wesley’s means of grace.

So let’s consider the other side of Elias’ list of virtues of the “modern monks” of his day.  Evagrius, another of the Abbas of the desert, identified avarice as being a passion for attachment.  It is not the sin of greed, but that as I mentioned in my previous post on attachment, an item as become identified with our very self.  We fear giving anything away as we are losing part of our self.  Next we can compare self-confidence with the passion of vainglory.  This is a sin of self-deception, that we are so in need of praise and recognition, “...that our actions are determined by our need (75, Bondi).  

Finally, from Elias’ list is ‘great-greed,’ which I think carries issues regarding both gluttony and avarice.  We would know it today as hoarding.  We collect our dollars, our trinkets, our houses which are far too large, indulge in frivolities with the full justification that they are OUR’S and we have EARNED them.  Maybe we have, but how is this consistent with a God whose very character is a cruciform love; a love which claims nothing and instead gives freely?

I want to note one more observation of Dr. Bondi’s here and that is the fact that the “passions create blindness (72. ibid).”  We are easily deceived by our attention being paid to practices and praise for which can take full credit.  The answer to this is to turn to “the best guide of blind,” in John Wesley’s words, “the perfect instructor of the foolish, is faith. But  it must be such a faith as is ‘mighty through God…’” (167, “Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons).

Our spiritual formation then, is a formation of your choosing in the way of “predecessors” or in the way of “nowadays.”   Funny how little things have changed in all these centuries!  To choose one, you must give up the way of the other. What we don't do, is look deep enough. Our attention to the leaves and branches ultimately leave the roots unexamined and it is here we need to look. Our growing attention to the debates of authority, theology, and ideology, leave little time for a deeper look at our way of life.  So let me ask ya, how much care are you giving to your way of life?  

Give Up: You've Got It Backwards-Our Struggle with Attachment

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ Mark 8:31-38

I've always thought Peter gets a far harder time than he deserves.  Jesus was actually there alongside Jesus.  If Peter doesn’t get this and understand this, how sure are you that you do?  

Consider what happened to Earl.  While looking out over the canyon, Earl leaned against the fence.  Unfortunately, it was a section that had weakened in recent rains and Earl tumbled over.  The flailing of his arms allowed him to snag hold of tree growing from the side of the canyon.  No one saw him fall and Earl quickly grew tired of hollering for help.

Finally, Earl cried out, “God help me!  Please, God, help me.”  To Earl’s surprise he heard a voice answer back, “All right,” came the voice.  “Let go.”  Looking down, Earl saw the bottom of the canyon far below and the jagged rocks which waited for him.  “Let go?” he thought, SERIOUSLY?!?!  “But God, you don’t understand!”  He yelled, “I’m too far up, I’ll…”

“Let go,” the voice said again.  Only the wind made a sound.  Then, in a timid voice, Earl called back, “Is there someone else I can talk to up there?”  

We tend to be fairly attached to our convictions about religions so it may surprise you that nearly every religion, and certainly the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all speak about our attachment; our need to GIVE UP.  Earl’s story is funny but it isn’t far from reality either.  You may recall the story of Aron Ralson, the mountaineer in Colorado, who, after a number of days with an arm pinned under a boulder, took his pocket knife out and self-amputated.  To gain life he had to give up his arm.

Rarely will we face such life and death struggles.  But Jesus says, “Hold on!”  You want to be my disciple?  Then ask yourself, what are you attached to?  What are you holding onto you won’t give up?  You want to count yourself as “people of the Cross?” If you do, you’ve got some thing or somethings to consider giving up.  

Jesus is concerned for the soul though it is a concern rooted in our physical world.  It is sukey (psu-khey), the life breath we share with all creation. It is the “animal life” understanding.  Think again of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for food, water, clothing and shelter, and wifi.  Just as the Spirit’s fruits of love, joy, peace, kindness and the rest, are shown in the physical world, it is also the physical world which so holds us, we just cannot give it up.  But it isn’t the item, or title or even person which is the problem.  The problem of attachment is when the item has become part of our very self.

There is a story that tells of a monk who had as a practice of his spirituality, taken a vow of poverty.  Other than his simple cloak, he had in his possession a golden begging bowl that had been given to him by the king, who was his disciple.  One evening, as the monk laid to down to sleep in the ruins of a monastery, he spied a thief in the shadows.  Calling out to the thief, he said, “Here, take this bowl.  This way, you will not disturb me as I sleep.  The thief grabbed it and immediately fled, thankful for his good fortune.  But he returned the next day.  He spoke to the monk, “When you gave me the bowl, I felt so poor.  Teach me to acquire the riches that come from living a life of lighthearted detachment.”  (from “The Spirituality of Imperfection”)

There is nothing you have that God wants except to be in relationship to you, for you to know God as loving God.  But you cannot dictate the terms by which you come to God, it is God who has made the way.  We celebrate this great mystery, that God gave up his life for us.  It is your turn, are you prepared today to give up?

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