Letting Go Into Heaven
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 31, 2014
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (19:16-26)
Today a rich, young man – a man who had all the material possessions he needed and all the religious pedigree possible according to the Law – approaches Jesus with a question: “What must I do to have eternal life.” He knew the answer Jesus would give (at least part of it). The Lord goes down a short list of the Ten Commandments. This is the law both of them knew very well.
The rich young man is sure of himself, very like the prideful college professor who visited the Zen Master in order to debate and refute his teaching. The Zen Master poured him a cup of tea until it overflowed the cup into the tray. The professor cries out, “What are you doing?” The Master replies, “In the cup that is full there is no more room for tea.”
This points to the the concept of “beginner’s mind.” In the beginner’s mind there is flexibility and room for growth. In the expert’s mind there is not. As one of the Desert Fathers who had spent nearly all his life in ascetic labor was dying he was heard to pray, “Lord, help me to make a good beginning.” That is “beginner’s mind.” Humble, open, flexible, teachable, curious, childlike. When Christ speaks, this is how we must learn to listen.
The rich man appeared to be full already, knowing all the answers and having all he needed in life. But still he asked, “What then do I lack?” Evidently, he felt something was missing; perhaps he had begun to recognize that in spite of his riches, he was poor. Then Jesus gets to the point, “Sell your possessions, give to the poor and come follow me.”
What stood in the way of the young man’s eternal life was his attachment to his riches. As we learn later, he would not be able to let go of it. An attachment is something we believe we cannot live without and be secure and happy. But there is not one attachment that lasts beyond death. If we place our faith in a relationship or wealth or ideology or false idea, anything that is passing away like bubbles in a stream, all our hopes will die with them when they die. And they will. The happiness they offer is fleeting. The security they offer is a delusion. To have eternal life we must let go of temporal attachments and place our faith in things that are eternal. “Follow me,” is an invitation for the young man to do this.
Jesus asked him to let go of his riches and take a flying leap into the unknown – an act that seems foolish, especially to our modern capitalist and consumer driven minds.
But foolish is precisely what faith looks like to those who are attached to the false idea that there is any security in this world that can possibly be found. Why? Because death awaits us all, relationships, from lovers to empires, suffer and die, all ideologies are found to be utterly impoverished and often deadly, possessions are subject to “moth and rust” and any attachment in the end is discovered to be nothing more than the unending pursuit of the magic pill to cure our internal distress. Finding the pill, we lament because it doesn’t work. Not finding it we fall into dismay and begin our futile search once again. It is a painful and unending spiral into greater and greater misery until at last we end up either with nihilism or a rebirth into faith.
As I was reading some of the writings of Vivekananda I came across this this pearl of wisdom very much in keeping with our Orthodox understanding: “Every soul is a sun clouded over with ignorance, the only difference between soul and soul is owing to the difference in the density of these layers of clouds.” Each of us has a cloud-cover. For the sun to dawn it must be removed. This is rebirth.
There are many kinds of dawnings and thankfully, many opportunities. Jesus wants the Rich Young Man to be reborn, to see clearly the cause of his ignorance, to put his attachments aside and follow him. He wants to show him a new way of life. He wants this for each one of us. Letting go of his riches would be for this young man like a spiritual baptism, from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, as it would be for us if we would do it. But he could not and went away sad just as we so often do.
It is necessary for us to look honestly at what we treasure the most, that is, what we think we cannot live without, what we think is the source of our security and happiness. If we are honest, we will see that all these things are fragile at best, passing away before our very eyes as everything temporal is. When all these things are stripped away, the clouds lift and then the light in us will dawn bright and clear.
In Ray Bradbury’s story, “The Fire Balloons” a group of Anglican monks travel to Mars to convert the Martians. They believe first that they must convince of Martians that they are sinners. To do that they would have to figure out what, to a Martian, sin would be, but first they had to find them since most of the Martians were dead and the last ones had become blue spheres of fire. Fr. Peregrine and Fr. Stone find them in the mountains and set the monastic company to the task of building an altar and a church for them to attend. They clear a place, set up an altar with a lighted blue sphere on it, bring a small organ and start playing and singing. Eventually, they get a telepathic message that the Martians are coming but just for a little while because they have something to say to the earthlings. Here is what the Martians said to the earnest and naïve monks.
“We are the old Martians, who left our marble cities, and went into the hills forsaking the material life we had lived. So very long ago we became these things we are now. Once we were men like you, with bodies…such as yours. The legend has it that one of us, a good man, discovered a way to free man’s soul and intellect, to free him of bodily ills…and so we took on the look of lightening and blue fire and have lived in the winds and skies and hills forever after that, neither prideful nor arrogant, rich nor poor, passionate nor cold. We have lived apart from those we left behind, those other men of this world, and how we came to be has been forgotten, the process lost; but we shall never die, nor do harm. We have put away the sins of the body and live in God’s grace. We do not steal, nor kill, nor lust, nor hate. We live in happiness. We have left sin behind, Father Peregrine, and it is burned like the leaves in the autumn…and our season is temperate and our clime is rich in thought.”
The monks leave that place astonished and humbled and return to those who need them for the Martians were already quite saved.
Yes, it is not a wholly Orthodox metaphor (there is a certain identification of the body as the source of the problem, when it is not the body, but the mind that must be changed) but the point is clear. When we discover that God has created us as light and to be light, and when we put away everything that diminishes or hides that light, the sun in the center of our souls will shine out like a watch fire for the world to see. Using words to preach the Gospel will not be necessary. The world will see it and know what it really means.
Everything that works towards this discovery and becoming is godliness. Everything that doesn’t is sin. For the Rich Young Man it was his love of possessions, for all of us it is the attachment to something. When that something is revealed to us, let’s not walk away sad like the Rich Young Man. Let’s free ourselves from bondage and run after Christ right into the arms of heaven laughing with joy and shining like the sun.