Matthew 16: 21-28 Unlearning Rev. Marilu Thomas August 30, 2020
It is the end of August and we are facing the ‘back to school beast,’ with its insatiable need to return to a season of order. We are scrambling to figure out how to ‘get back to normal’ while we watch universities open then close, and public schools go virtual. Next week at Christ Church, we will have over 30 children in six, very separate, learning pods. Even as we stand here today, protocols for cleaning, distancing, volunteers and Diocesan building use requirements are happening. It is very life-giving activity, though, a resurrection from the six dusty months of closure. Many parents will continue balancing virtual homeschooling with job and home responsibilities. No one signed up for this extra duty in March. We have all been thrown into the deep end and expected to swim in these uncertain times. There is a feeling deep down inside us that conventional wisdom has been broken by the pandemic. What we thought we knew has not served us.
One father, Uri Friedman, describes how, in the early days, he and his wife created a brightly colored schedule on a white board, in imitation of the school they were sure their kids would be going back to any moment. That white board is now deeply buried under what he describes as the ‘low- grade chaos’ that has become their Covid-contained life. Last Spring, the young father was completely drained of ideas, and exhaustedly asked his 5-year-old son, “What do you want to learn tomorrow?” According to Uri, this act of pure desperation became something more. What his son named was surprisingly existential. “I am unlearning so much of what I used to know. [As Millennials, we suffered through 9/11 in school, the Great Recession when getting jobs and now we’re parenting in Covid. It made me realize that] our early childhood years were an anomaly, that systemic shock is to be expected, that our lives will be abruptly upended again and again. But I don’t want my kids to be numbed by crises into incuriousity… Today we are struggling to figure out how to transcend the old normal that failed us and how to address the existential challenges of our age.”
According to psychologist Frank Worrell, “Kids know something is happening, but they cannot see it, they cannot touch it.” What did Uri’s 5-year-old want to learn?
“What is God?” “Who made the world?” “Does space ever end?” “How does the weather work?” “How does my body work?” “When will the coronavirus end?” “What happens when you die?”
As I read Uri’s son’s questions, I brooded over how much of adulthood seems to center around what we acquire –what we own, what we know, what we’ve made– and not about admitting what we don’t know, or what Uri names ‘unlearning.’ The title of the article is, “My son is looking to me for answers and I don’t have them anymore.” (Atlantic Magazine, Aug.26)
The new normal will fail us just as much as the old normal did if our questions are centered on us and not God. We are the same people now as we were before the pandemic, and we will be the same people afterward. We are sinners who never rise above the rank of human. We don’t progress above self-centered, self-interested humans who constantly need help to not be focused on ourselves and to think about God or others.
“Our obsessions with being ‘masters of our fate,’ which the Bible calls ‘pride,’ underlies our sins. They are the symptoms of being hung up on ourselves.” Humility is the deep awareness of sin’s continuing presence in us and in the world. (Law and Gospel, Mockingbird) Humility can also be described as becoming teachable. Humility means admitting there is a chance you might be wrong and that you don’t not know everything.
Jesus tells us in our scripture today in Matthew, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Jesus is speaking to what is called The Old Adam in us—the one who feels righteous and will not accept blame for anything.
Peter tells Jesus that he should not go to the cross, thereby not accepting the blame for our sins. Jesus chastises him saying, “You have no idea how God works.”
The Message translation is especially helpful with this scripture. Jesus tells the disciples, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am…Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” Your true self is a forgiven sinner touched by grace.
I knew a man named Sandy Beach who helped me with the practical part of this scripture. He’d say that ‘losing your life’ means giving up all your old ideas, your whole game plan for living, all your convictions, every prejudice and bias. He said, “[My life] was like carrying around a 150 lb. rock…but it was my rock. It was mine—this thing I put together. This was the real me. I was drowning in a sea of self and God was throwing me a life preserver and saying, “Drop the Rock!” and I said, “No, man. Not dropping the rock! It’s mine! I made it. I put it all together.” We have cobbled together all our best ideas and accumulated opinions and we are not letting go—rather we pray for God to come to our side. As Jesus said to Peter, “We have no idea how God works.”
I clearly remember the feeling Sandy is describing. I was holding it all together—at least I thought so. I was holding onto all my old ideas about being a ‘good person,’ by the standards that I thought had been set for that higher rank. The standards felt impossibly high. We heard about these in our Romans text. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Live in harmony, bless those who persecute you, feeding your enemies, never avenge yourself, etc. I took that to mean, “Be pleasing and kind at all times.” I could never let anyone see my anxiety, my struggle, my flaws because that would mean I was not worthy of the name Christian. This produced a despair in me that was indescribable, because I couldn’t do this without volatile anger and deep resentment at myself and others. I was like Sisyphus pushing my rock up the hill every day—just 10 more feet and then I would be at the top of the heap.
I thought I was being a good Christian. One that Jesus make Jesus proud. I never knew that what I was doing was still self-centered because it was about me becoming better and better, not about the love of Christ coming through me for free. I was so weighed down with who I thought I should be, that I couldn’t be who I was made to be.
The standards are impossibly high because they are divine standards and only a Divinity can satisfy these demands of love and faith. This is why I cannot save myself. This is why my life, my thoughts about who I am and what I need to do to be good and valuable, needs saving.
Every time I have found myself drenched in grace, it was because my heavy rock of self that I had been pushing flattened me.
Why would I want to hold onto a life full of self-judgement when Jesus is offering me freedom—where I release the heavy rock of my self-crafted life into the nail pierced hands of Christ who loves me? Your self-interest will only get you more self-interest, not relief. As Uri told us, our lives will be upended over and over again, but like his son it can open our eyes to the reality of the unseen. This is called ‘death of self,’ or the upending of all our sacred cows and old ideas so that the Spirit can bring new life. What will it profit you if you gain the whole world—everything that should make you happy but doesn’t—and lose the love? None of us has died to self on our own—not while we are on the earthly plane will we ever achieve this. We will always be 100% sinner and 100% saint. And Christ will always be 100% by your side.
Christ’s life’s blood was given so that you would have a life free of carrying the rock of the law and be saved by grace. May our current desperation allow us to open our clenched hands and hearts in humility to receive what God in Christ has given us, a life redeemed and resurrected. This is the perennial Good News of the Gospel and it is especially good news, especially during a pandemic. Amen