Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Opening to Life
Rom. 8:6-11[1]
Stories can sometimes tell our truth far better than lectures or sermons. I think that’s why, on any given weekend, you will find far more cars parked at the movie theaters than at churches. Classic fables like the boy who cried wolf have become so familiar they are almost universally recognized. Even ancient myths continue to speak to us, like the myth about Sysiphus who had to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Or the one about Icarus whose father made him wings of wax and feathers so he could fly, but when he flew too high the wings melted because he got too close to the Sun. Or the one about Odysseus, who after the Greeks conquered Troy bragged that humans didn’t need the gods and was forced to wander at sea for twenty years. These stories still speak to us today.
One particular myth that I think relates to our lesson from St. Paul is the story of Narcissus. Narcissus was renowned for being so handsome—he was the equivalent of People Magazine’s “sexiest man” in the ancient world. But he was so vain and so self-absorbed that he spurned all those who tried to love him. As a result, one of the gods drew him to a pool of water where he fell in love with his own reflection. When he realized that it was only his reflection, he lay down and died, and in his place grew up a lily, called the Narcissus. The myth of Narcissus is tragic—here’s a man whom everyone loved, but he was unable to love anyone. He was so turned in upon himself that he cut himself off from the joy and enthusiasm and love that were freely available all around him.[2]
I think that this particular fable may have something to teach us about what St. Paul has to say about being “ruled by our desires” (Rom. 8:6, CEV). The standard translation says it this way: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Now, when he talks about setting your mind on the flesh, we might think St. Paul is warning us against pornography. But we can’t restrict to that. In a very real sense, “flesh” refers to all the ways in which we seek to fulfill our needs, wants, and desires. It is shorthand for a life that is defined by self-centered and self-oriented “self-actualization.”[3] And St. Paul warns us that when we live a life that is taken up with getting what we want and getting others to do what we want,[4] we wind up choking the life out of ourselves.
Nevertheless, it seems to be more and more the way we live our lives. We live in what is increasingly a “first-person-singular world.”[5] That means a world in which “I” is the dominant factor. Most of us might be tempted to nod our heads and point our fingers to all those selfish and self-centered people out there. But the real challenge in text like this is to acknowledge our own devotion to the “flesh.” If you’re not sure how this applies to you, take a simple test: ask yourself how many of your sentences begin with “I” and end in “me.”[6] Perhaps even more telling would be for us to ask ourselves how many of our prayers begin with “I” and end in “me”? I think most of us would have to acknowledge that we live in an increasingly first-person-singular world.
It’s no wonder we as a people seem to be so unhappy. St. Paul puts it bluntly: setting your focus on the flesh leads to death. Now we might be tempted to take that literally, like the Genesis passage that says “in the day you eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, you shall surely die.” Or we might want to take it figuratively—as in a life that is dominated by selfishness leads to spiritual death. But I want to look at the possibility of taking it in a completely different way: when we orient our lives on fulfilling our own selfish needs, wants, and desires, we tend to close in on ourselves. In the process we cut ourselves off from the joy and and enthusiasm and love that is all around us. We choke the life out of ourselves!
That’s the real pitfall to self-actualization. It has a way of turning into “self-idolatry.”[7] We spend all our time and energy frantically seeking to get all that we want out of life. And because our happiness is so wrapped up with whether we succeed, this quest has a way of consuming us. We become obsessed with getting what we want out of life, and we close in on ourselves. But in the process we are cutting ourselves off from the stream of life that is all around us, flowing through the lives of the people we come in contact with. In a stroke of irony, we spend all our effort trying to get all we want out of life, and in reality we’re only ensuring that we cut ourselves off from life.
I want to tell you the story of another Narcissus—a contemporary one. This one was caught up not with his appearance but his ability. As a result, he felt himself called to a “higher task.” He pursued that task with single-minded devotion. Nothing would dissuade him from this task. He was well-liked by many, but had only few really close friends. He just didn’t take the time away from his quest. And he just didn’t want to take the risk of opening himself up to the people around him.
He continued to pursue his calling, racking up achievements and rising higher in his pursuits. He was a model family man, of course, but he never really took enough time for other people. Part of the problem was that he really didn’t feel comfortable letting them into his heart. And he grew lonely and exhausted from the effort. One day, his whole world came crashing down, and he found himself almost completely alone in the world. No family, no career, no quest. Everything he had so single-mindedly devoted himself to was gone. And he was forced to open himself to the people around him. And as he opened himself to the people around him, he found joy and new life and enthusiasm returning. And now he is … your pastor.
We all have the choice to close in on ourselves, on our own needs and wants and desires, or to open ourselves to the joy and love and life that is all around us. But it takes a leap of faith to open ourselves to life—we have to take the risk of letting go all our selfish pursuits and opening ourselves to the wonderful and unpredictable Spirit that is flowing so freely and so full of life all around us.[8]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/10/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 58, where he characterized Narcissus, and the symptom narcissism that takes its name from him, in terms of “a self-absorption and containment that allows no connections of the heart.”
[3] Cf. Paul Achtemeier, Romans, 132; Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 443; Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 87-88.
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, where he defines this life in terms of being “caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification,” and people who “love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their will.”
[5] Cf. Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3.
[6] Schmidt, What God Wants, 18.
[7] Achtemeier, Romans, 132.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 171-73. Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, 19, where he “redefines” his Christian view of God in light of his dialogue with Buddhism by saying, “God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all of us, all of creation.”

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