Wombs, Tombs, and New Names--The Four Renunciations of Lent
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
The Reverend Tyler Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Benedictine nun Sister Meg Funk has written a lovely little book called Humility Matters: Tools for the Spiritual Life that speaks deeply to the precious gift that is set before us in the season of Lent—the birth of true humility in the ground of soul. Sister Meg has been a frequent participant in interfaith dialogues over the years—perhaps most notably in the first and second Gethsemane encounters that brought together monastics from various traditions to share their experiences and insights into the spiritual life—and she says something very interesting about the fruit of these dialogues. As is so often the case in genuine, loving, receptive, encounter with people of other faiths, Sister Meg was given to see her own tradition with more clarity and depth. The encounter with the other showed her something about herself and her own tradition in a fresh, sometimes startling, way. Sister Meg realized that what the Buddhists call “enlightenment,” what the Hindus call “diksha,” what the Confucians call “sincerity” goes under the neglected banner of “humility” in the Christian tradition. Humility. Really? That hardly seems like the kind of thing that will get people out of bed on Sunday morning.
Nietzsche called humility evidence of the “slave mentality” of Christianity. Feminist scholars have demonstrated how humility has been twisted by those in power (white males) to reinforce existing social inequalities and subjugate those on the margins. And yet Sister Meg tells us that humility, rightly understood in the tradition of the Church is not just one of the virtues, it is the font of all virtues. If we want to understand the richness of our own tradition, and not just throw the baby out with the bathwater in the name of so-called progress, we need to understand this strange bird humility might be.
Humility is really about becoming simple, like a little child, and learning to depend on God. We learn that we don’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps but depend on the grace of God to work all good works in us. Our wholeness, happiness, and salvation comes not through self-effort, but surrender to the one who is all beauty, truth and goodness. Sister Meg says that the way of humility can be marked by what she calls the four renunciations: the renunciation of one’s former way of life (turning from self-effort to surrender to God in Christ and becoming poor in spirit); the renunciation of thoughts about that former life (when we did everything under our own steam); the renunciation of thoughts about God (that God might finally get a word in edgewise); and the renunciation of thoughts about ourselves (usually inherited and internalized from our parents, teachers, and culture).
In our readings for today, we see elements of all four of these renunciations enacted. Take the story of Abram and Sarai, for example. Abram and Sarai are advanced in age, well past the age of child-bearing. And yet, God choses them, in their apparent weakness, uselessness, and lack of fruitfulness, to be the vessels of the new humanity he is going to fashion—a humanity that lives from and for God, that knows God’s love for them and embodies that love in encounter with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. God calls Abram and Sarai away from their home and asks them to set out on a journey that is the journey of each of us and this community. With that first step, we of course see the renunciation of their former way of life. They leave the settled comfort of the retirement community with its predictable schedule, regular meals, and warm beds for a trek across the desert. It’s quite miraculous this receptive, responsive willingness to drop what they are doing, and follow a voice that calls them into the wilderness of unknowing. Pray for such grace to follow so boldly.
They also renounce their thoughts of their former life… the kind of “good old days” mentality that keeps them bound to their past lives even though they are no longer a reality. They let those thoughts go and step out of their tents for their journey into reality of God. And along the way, they discover that their ideas of who God is and who they are have to be renounced as well. Surely, it’s sheer crazy talk to think that God is using them to be the wellspring of the people of God who will be more numerous that the stars in the sky! We’re pushing a hundred years old… we’re old, decrepit and barren. We’re as good as dead (as Paul says in Romans). We can’t even tie our shoes let alone raise children! Not so fast, God says. Drop your ideas of who I am and who you are. Step out. I am not what you think. You are not what you think. And the world around you is not what you think.
What happens when they renounce these ideas? What happens when they drop who they think God is and encounter God as God actually is? What happens when they let go of their ideas about themselves and their lives, and open themselves to the mysterious presence and action of the God of playfulness and surprise? They are reborn. They are given new names—“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…. As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” Their new names aren’t just a change on the birth certificate or social security card, but emblematic of a whole new orientation of life away from what they thought was the settled, predictable reality of their life together and towards the vivacious, effervescent, fecundity of the Living God. They renounce scarcity, lack, barrenness, and fixity, and begin the walk into new life. Anyone else reminded of the raising of Lazarus? The empty tomb?
Our Gospel for today demonstrates some of these same types of renunciations as well. Poor Peter. Always putting his foot in it! No sooner does he answer Jesus’ $64,000 question—“Who do you say I am?”—correctly than he gets rebuked by Jesus in the strongest possible way. Whenever we hear that term “rebuke” we need to remember that this is exorcism language. Jesus isn’t just scolding Peter, he is freeing him from the thrall of the demonic—everything that destroys and distorts the children of God and hinders God’s grace in the world. Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, but it’s a pretty limited picture of the messiah. Peter’s “messiah” doesn’t include suffering and death on a garbage heap outside the city walls. Peter’s “messiah” doesn’t have room for betrayal, abandonment, and humiliation at the hands of imperial powers. That’s not what Kings traditionally look like after all. Notice that when Jesus rebukes Peter he turns to the disciples. He is looking at and reminding us that often our picture of who God is in the world doesn’t match how God actually is. I’m not some version of the Emperor. I’m not just another warrior King on whose coattails you can ride to glory and a privileged position in my new cabinet as Minister of Loaves and Fishes, or Special Envoy to the Gerasene Demoniacs. Those limited and limiting pictures need to be renounced, seen through, and let go so that who God is in Godself can shine forth.
You see Kings come and go. Cabinets are formed and dissolved. And if we think of God in those terms, our God is too small. Peter’s images of who Jesus is needs to be let go of—the scales need to fall from his eyes—in order that he might actually see who Jesus is. The Living God who is revealed in person and work of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior doesn’t fit in those neat little boxes. That’s the empty tomb towards which the season of Lent runs with haste. The shattering of all our images and expectations of who God is and who we are as God’s beloved children is necessary for the miracle of new life in Christ to be born in our hearts that we might live from that graced promise. Jesus isn’t here simply to make things run a little better, but turn the world on its head. We don’t need a gifted administrator, or a quasi-divine social worker, or a better, more spiritual version of a leader we already have. We need a savior. We need Jesus. And when we turn Jesus into a general, even a Salvation Army General, we are limiting his saving work to what we think we know. God wants to show us how to live without fear, to walk the open road confident in God’s unshakeable love for us. God wants to draw us to Himself and free us from the hold of sin and death, not just smooth out a few bumps in the road.
Sometimes we hear talk of losing our life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the Gospel in a rather literal way. Of course, walking the way of love will not win you many friends and admirers. Just think of Dr. Martin Luther King. Just think of Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria who in the face of threats from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), chose to stay put and minister to the local Muslim poor and needy who had come to depend on the monks of the monastery for food and medicine. But losing your life isn’t always as dramatic as that. The early desert fathers and mothers referred to going apart as a kind of “white martyrdom” in contrast to red martyrdom of Christians in the coliseum. That white martyrdom is precisely what Sister Meg is pointing us towards—the renunciation of all the different ways we box up God and ourselves. God as judge. God as policeman. God as indifferent Rube Goldberg machine designer who starts the thing running and sits back and watches in amusement. Ourselves as greatest thing since sliced bread, or the worst thing since the invention of the wheel. Other people as always disappointing and falling short, or other people as the source of approval and esteem. The list goes on and on, and it’s different for each of us. That is what the space, and silence of Lent is for—to develop a working grammar of the of the kinds of images that hold us captive. For it is in seeing those images clearly, that they suddenly lose their hold over us and there is room for something new to arise, to flow through us.
There is no doubt, however, that learning to let go of these images can feel a little bit like losing your life. That’s the white martyrdom part and there are no shortcuts in the spiritual life. The foundations that we’ve assumed are so solid begin to shake and crumble. Our usual ways of orienting ourselves towards God, neighbor and ourselves, fall away and we are in an open place, face-to-face with a bracing freedom of which we cannot conceive. We’ve lost our so-called life, which is a lot more like death than we are willing to admit. But out of that loss, out of the barrenness of Sarai’s womb and the dazzling darkness of that empty tomb we find not Kings of our own making, or Messiahs who fit into our five year strategic plan, but the uncontainable effervescence of the Living God: the God of impossible surprises who will stop at nothing to draw us to Himself. Like Abram and Sarai we discover that we, too, have been given a new name. It’s not the name of our family, our nation, or our denomination. It’s not the name we’ve inherited through years of conditioning by advertising or education. It is the name that God speaks out of silence to each one of us. The name that tells us who we really are when all those other imprisoning images fall away. The name that reminds us that we are, each of us without exception, beloved children of the promise, precious in His sight. Lose your life and hear yourself spoken into being in each moment by the God who brings nations from barren wombs, and life from empty tombs.