Stepping Outside the Cycle
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, October 30, 2016
Let’s remind ourselves of some basic Christian truths. How often we forget the simplest things.
First, remember that the parable we read today is a metaphor, not history. I have heard people who think we should take it literally as a picture of what heaven and hell are really like. This parable is really not about the future. Remember what Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS told the clergy at last summer’s Symposium, “From the perspective of God heaven and hell do not exist.”
The parable shows us not what the afterlife is like, but what life is like right now. The Rich Man goes from his earthly paradise to eternal torment. We too are torn between heaven and hell in the form of pleasure and pain, desire and fear, joy and sorrow.
Even if somehow we end up rich, everything will eventually be taken away from us in death, or maybe even before that. Desire and fear is the pendulum we all know too well. We win and we are in heaven. We lose and we feel we are in hell. We are healthy one day and the next in a hospital. One day we feel on top of the world. The next we are scrapping bottom. Desire and fear, attachment and aversion, pleasure and despair are all misguided images of heaven and hell – a cycle that follows us from birth to death and Jesus points the way out of it. It is the way of selflessness.
In the spiritual lore of India there is a beautiful saying that holds great truth. It goes like this. When we are born the Lord whispers one word into our ears, “give.” That truly is the voice of God. In the New Testament it goes like this, “Deny yourself. Give and expect nothing in return. Go the second mile. Turn the other cheek, don’t worry about what you will eat or wear, don’t worry about tomorrow. In other words, let go of desire and fear. Step outside the cycle and be free of it. Clearly it is a choice we make. Clearly, to Jesus, it is a choice we CAN make. “Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness and everything will be added to you.”
Here is a story I told many years ago. I would like to repeat it now because it presents a beautiful picture of what a truly selfless person is like.
"Roberto de Vicenzo, the famous Argentine golfer, once won a tournament, and after receiving the check and smiling for the cameras, he went to the clubhouse and prepared to leave. Sometime later he walked alone to his car in the parking lot and was approached by a young woman. She congratulated him on his victory and then told him that her child was seriously ill and near death.
"De Vicenzo was touched by her story and took out a pen and endorsed his winning check for payment to the woman. 'Make some good days for the baby,' he said as he pressed the check into her hand.
"The next week he was having lunch in a country club when a PGA official came to his table. 'Some of the guys in the parking lot last week told me you met a young woman there after you won the tournament.' De Vicenzo nodded. 'Well,' said the official, 'I have news for you. She's a phony. She's not married. She has no sick baby. She fleeced you, my friend.'
" 'You mean there is no baby who is dying?' said de Vicenzo.
" 'That's right.'
" 'That's the best news I've heard all week,' he replied."
The way of self-denial is courageous, creative and compassionate, often surprising and always inspirational. When you see it, you know that the Spirit of God is at work. You know that God is near. You see an authentic human being.
The question remains, do we want to be like that? As Jack Kornfield writes, we are always free to set the compass of our hearts to the highest intentions. Another pertinent and related question is, “How long do we want to suffer?” If we want to step out of the cycle of suffering, then we must die to ourselves and as St. Paul writes, make ourselves “living sacrifices.” Not all at once. Who could do that? Little by little, tiny change by tiny change. As we die to ourselves little by little the soul comes alive and we become more and more ourselves, truly human and truly divine.
Every moment presents us with a choice. If we want to be selfless, then the path of choices looks like this:
At this moment, I choose to remember God. With every breath I will remember him. I will follow Jesus now. I will make his mind my mind. I will not betray the image of God. I will not return evil for evil. I will care more about others than I do about myself. I will not neglect the poor. I will make some soup for my neighbor. I will visit prisoners and welcome strangers. I will do what I can to lift up every person I meet. I will be kind. I will be compassionate. And when I fall, I will rise and start again. I will rise and start all over again. Every morning when I wake, I will give thanks and leave my door with an intention to bring peace and love to this world. I will go everywhere with God.
Then watch and see as the Spirit begins to move through you, for fear and desire block the free flow of God’s power. This letting go is what we call faith and with faith anything is possible. But you gotta let go, before it can flow.
If we aspire to living a spiritual life, we must allow the beautiful teachings of Christ to permeate every aspect of life. The mind of Christ must become our mind. The life of Christ, our way of life: selfless humility with hearts wide open.
Outside the cycle of selfishness we are able to see with unclouded eyes. Christ is the poor, Christ is the lonely, Christ is the prisoner, Christ is my neighbor. And then we will know what freedom is. And then we will know what it means to love and be loved. Then it will no longer be I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. Then we will be truly human and then we will be divine.