Jesus says if anyone wants to be his disciple
that person must “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow . . . . “
Denying oneself doesn’t sound very healthy to
people who have cut their teeth on pop psychology.
Today we are all about being ourselves – not denying ourselves.
So is Jesus saying anything we might even consider?
First let’s get clear on what Jesus isn’t saying.
He doesn’t mean to pretend we aren’t who we really are.
It’s not about being phony.
It isn’t avoiding the things that make us happy.
One of our best New Testament scholars translates this verse,
“he must forget himself.”
Jesus is saying to stop fretting over our own self-interests.
Stop trying to make ourselves important.
St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.”
I know what he means and I bet you do too.
Even when things are going better than par for me,
my mind spins out complications.
I still manage to tangle the lines of my relationships.
The harder I work at making myself happy,
the more frustrated and anxious I become.
I remain “a great problem to myself.”
It is a dreadful thing to be self-obsessed.
In my case, I’m not even that interesting.
It’s like being addicted to a bad sit-com.
Modern culture has set us free from many bonds
– bondage to political tyranny,
respect for hierarchical authorities,
obligations to extended families and tradition.
But once we are set free from those powers,
modern culture delivers us into the hands
of the harshest task-master of all,
the demands of our own self-interest.
We work so hard at making ourselves successful and secure
that we don’t see the sunrise, taste our food,
or feel the air on face.
We lose our lives.
As novelist Walker Percy put it,
we “miss our lives as a man might miss a bus.”
When Jesus invites us to follow him,
he is inviting us on a journey into life,
but to begin that journey, he says,
we first have to forget about ourselves.
Some years ago, I was leading a Bible Study.
One day, one person in the class told the story
of how she had been weighed down by an unspeakable grief.
It was the death of her young daughter.
But then someone else in the congregation became terminally ill.
So instead of sinking in her grief,
she forgot herself, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work
helping her dying friend.
The bereaved mother found her life by losing it in helping someone else.
In that same class, a man told the story of being trapped
in his sense of his own sin, shame, and unworthiness.
But his friend was dying of AIDS and wanted to see him.
So he had to forget himself, forget his unworthiness,
to visit the dying friend,
and that visit restored his own life.
One person had her identity wrapped up in grief.
The other had his identity wrapped up in guilt.
Neither was able to really live.
The paradox of Christianity is that we begin to really live
when we forget about ourselves.
90% of religion doesn’t get that.
90% of religion just replaces material self-centeredness
with spiritual self-centeredness.
All the religion driven by trying to stay out of hell
and go to heaven is just spiritual self-centeredness.
All the spirituality of trying to achieve a happy state of mind
is just spiritual self-centeredness.
It’s all just one more ego-project.
But how do we get out of that trap?
How can we possibly forget ourselves?
If I set out to forget myself for my own sake,
the contradiction ties me in knots.
I remain “a great problem to myself.”
The two people in my Bible Study
were drawn out of their self-obsession
by other people who needed them.
Is there someone you care about who needs you?
Might there be someone you don’t know yet
who needs you and is waiting to liberate you
from the prison of our self-obsession?
One more liberation story.
Another woman in that same Bible Study told
about a week she had spent trapped in depression and self-pity,
weighed down by it, miserable in it.
Her identity was wrapped up in loneliness.
Then at the grocery store checkout counter,
a stranger gave her a rose.
In that instant, she forgot herself.
The beauty of the rose
and the beauty of the act of giving her the rose
surprised her and filled her with delight.
You want to know what the heart of Christian spirituality is?
You want to know what grace means?
It’s a stranger handing you a rose on a bad day.
We’ve all had glimpses of it.
We encounter something beautiful or good.
We sense the presence of holiness.
And we forget ourselves,
like losing ourselves in music.
We see the value of a life other than our own.
We see its fragility.
We know someone needs us,
and we value them enough to do what’s needed.
We visit them in the hospital.
We bring them a meal.
We drop our agenda and just listen to someone
who needs to talk.
And so we put our ego-projects on the shelf for awhile
and give a little time, a little of ourselves to someone else.
Ironically, the more we give ourselves away,
the fuller of life we become.
But those are just little tastes of freedom.
In order to really forget ourselves,
to put our ego projects away for good,
our attention must be captured by something
powerfully, even ultimately, fascinating.
We need to see something beautiful enough,
captivating enough, delightful enough
to make us want to gaze on it forever.
That would be God.
We are all in church this morning.
But why is that? What are we doing here?
And why are the people who are absent not here?
Sometimes unchurched people tell me they skip church
because they weren’t “getting anything out of it.”
Younger folks are apt to say it isn’t “meaningful.”
Their assumption is that the goal is to prop up their egos,
that the church is supposed to fortify them
in their quest for personal well-being.
Some of the more entertaining churches
take that job on and do it well.
Joel Osteen has a huge following of people who want a religion
that will make them healthy, wealthy, and better looking.
The bookstores are stuffed with prescriptions
and the world is awash in snake oil remedies
to fortify the self, the polish the self, the fix the self.
But Jesus says, forget about yourself.
Lay yourself down and take up the cross.
Give yourself away for love -- love for a friend,
love for a neighbor, love for a stranger,
love for God in whatever strange guise God may present himself --
and you will find a rare beauty, joy, and wonder.
But you cannot possess it.
You can’t go around bragging “I’ve found it.”
You can’t mould it into a badge and pin it on your chest,
because the instant you try to do any of that
is disappears like the mist at sunrise.
You can’t lay claim to it.
You can only lose yourself in it,
and when you lose yourself,
you get God in return.
The simple point of the gospel is this:
God is better.