Benediction Online

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Surrender to Death or Life?

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24, Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Mark 5:21-43

Recently I’ve been watching the series which Ken Burns made for PBS on the 2nd World War. Yesterday I saw the final episode and the images that linger in my mind are of piles of dead bodies. Incredible carnage. War is a truly horrible thing and we know that there are still wars going on today, apparently interminable blood shed, some of it in our name. I am truly grateful to live in a generation which has known little violence in our own homes.

Today’s readings deal with death and resurrection, pain and healing. The first reading today is from the Book of Wisdom, which is not one of the books included in the Bible but is included in the apocrypha – the B team of books which didn’t quite make the grade. Wisdom is thought to date from about one century before Jesus’ life and reflects a change in Jewish thinking about life after death. In earlier times the only possibility of immortality was through one’s descendants, which was why Abraham was so concerned about having children. As a result the Old Testament doesn’t say much about eternal life. In comparison New Testament writers often talked about death and compared it with life in Christ or eternal life.

But what do they mean by ‘death’? When Paul says ‘the wages of sin is death’ is he suggesting that if we were sinless we would live for centuries? I don’t think so. The death of the physical body happens to all us mortals sooner or later. I think the death that Paul means is the death of the soul or spirit within us. For most of us it happens slowly and subtly, every time we turn away from God we die a little – our hearts are hardened a little more – but every time we turn towards God we receive more life. Every time we replace doubt and fear by faith and trust we receive more life.

But that makes it sound as though the business of eternal life is ours alone, which is one of the distortions of our time. Books like “The Secret” and many contemporary ‘spiritual’ teachings make it sound as though we can do this ourselves. We cannot. Left to ourselves we cannot make even the small changes that lead to life because our lives as humans are so mired in sin. It is the grace of God which allows and causes us to change. It is the grace of God which calls us and makes us long for a life-giving relationship with the divine.

Sometimes we experience that grace as a sudden in-breaking of God in a moment of peak experience. Sometimes we experience it as a ‘warming of the heart’. Sometimes it is mediated through other people in something they say or do. But God never forces Godself into our lives, God always works with us, at our invitation. So turning to life is the result of our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, our choosing to surrender control of our lives to God.

‘Surrender’ is not an easy idea for most of us. The importance of autonomy and independence is so ingrained in American culture that we tend to bristle at any idea that we should give up our independence. Next weekend we will celebrate Independence Day. Yet the very basis of sin is independence. Independence from God is what leads to inner death, to the death that pervades human culture, the death that Jesus came to free us from.

Surrender has several different meanings. In war it means giving up, stopping fighting, handing over ones weapons and allowing one’s captor to decide what happens next. In love it means becoming receptive and allowing oneself to be embraced and surrounded by the lover. In the spiritual life it means all these things.

It means giving up and stopping fighting. Often we fight God. We choose not to listen, we ignore things that it’s inconvenient to hear. All of us have places where we want to stay in charge and so we choose not to listen to ideas that challenge us to surrender. We have a special room in our hearts for God and we want to keep her confined in that special place. God wants to be fully and completely in every room in our lives, especially the ones we want to keep to ourselves, whether from fear or shame or a desire to be in charge. Surrender means being willing to open the door to every room, to the places where we keep our deepest treasures and the places we hide our deepest shame.

Surrender means handing over our weapons. We are all trained to fight. We are trained to think that there is not enough to go around and so we must use our wits and our power to get enough for ourselves. Surrender means trusting that God will provide, and that there is enough. Surrender means stopping attacking other people, even in our minds, by criticism, anger, disdain and contempt. Surrender to God is not just changing our relationship to God but changing our relationship to those around us. The first great commandment is to love God, the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. We get to lay down our weapons, not just the ones we turn towards God, but the ones we turn toward each other and the ones we turn towards ourselves.

Surrender means allowing one’s captor to decide what happens next. Allowing God to decide what happens next is especially difficult to think about. Since we are not passive, since our surrender does not make us puppets, it is perhaps best to think in terms of aligning our will with divine will. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, ‘Not my will but thine’. That is the prayer of surrender, ‘not my will but thine.’ As we pray everyday, ‘not my will but thine’ so our wills become attuned and aligned with divine will.

Surrender means allowing oneself to be embraced and surrounded by the lover. Mystics have often used the language of physical intimacy to describe their experience of God. In order to be truly intimate with another we have to let down our defenses and surrender something of ourselves in order to let the other in. Surrendering to God is allowing one’s soul to be united with its lover and it’s beloved. This is deep spiritual work but it is where we find life.

Life is in our relationship to the divine. Life is God’s gift of grace. Life is not eternal youth. Life is not avoiding physical death or even physical pain. Life is becoming the people God created us to be. Life is the inner hope and joy that sustains us and those around us even in times of great difficulty. Life is in trusting so deeply in God’s love that nothing can frighten us, nothing can disturb our peace, even in the midst of war.


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