Entertaining sorrow

Homily for Sunday, October 1, 2017
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 2:1–13

This morning’s homily is for those of us who are in the second half of life.  You know who you are.  You are in the second half of life perhaps because of age, but more because you have glimpsed something of your final horizon.  This glimpse can happen to anyone at any time, but most often happens at a time of loss or when things fall apart.  This morning I’m going to do something unusual and tell you right from the get-go the point of this homily.  The point it this: if we are able to accept, and even embrace, death in everyday life, then we have the possibility of living our lives without fear, in freedom and with joy.

Girl and Grief- Nord Friedhof, München-x1klima

Girl and Grief; photo credit: x1klima

When I say “death in everyday life” I mean those moments of loss that happen to us every day.  Even the youngest know something about loss—losing a game, a cherished toy, an argument.  And as we grow older, the stakes of loss become higher: we didn’t get the grade we wanted, we didn’t make the sports team, we were turned down for a date, we didn’t get into the college we wanted, we didn’t get the job we wanted, we don’t earn the salary we expected, our marriage isn’t quite what we envisioned, our relationship with our kids is what we had hoped for; the death of a parent, a divorce, the loss or diminishment of a physical ability, the death of a spouse, and finally our own last illness and death.  Every day we “die” in some form or another; there is no escape.  Death is part of being human; death is part of everyday life.

Even though we know we cannot escape death, we try.  We busy ourselves with many tasks; we distract ourselves with many pleasures; we delude ourselves with the falsehoods that money or fame or power will somehow save us.  But there is no getting around death.

(This is uplifting, I know.  Bear with me!)

If we wish to be fearless, and to find freedom and know peace and joy even in the face of death, the only choice is to do as Jesus himself did: to go straight ahead into these “deaths.”  As Paul writes in today’s lesson to the Philippians, Jesus

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself…
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

San Esteban crucifix

Crucifix in the sacristy of San Esteban priory church, Salamanca; photo credit: Lawrence OP

Jesus walked right into it!  He knew he was human; he knew that death was part of everyday life; he knew there was no escape.  So he emptied himself, he humbled himself, and he became obedient even to death on a cross.

If we’re not careful, we can write Jesus’ sacrifice off:  “He was also God.  He had nothing to fear; he knew he would be alright.”  Or we can make Jesus’ sacrifice an unhealthy impetus for our own:  “Jesus gave of himself and died; as a Christian I, too, must give of myself and die.”

Sometimes we in the West are too close to see it, and we need a light shined on us from the East to illuminate for us our own truths. In a famous poem, Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, writes of welcoming all that comes to us in our daily lives—even the “deaths”—and how such hospitality is healthy:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jalal_al-Din_Rumi,_Showing_His_Love_for_His_Young_Disciple_Hussam_al-Din_ChelebiRumi has learned that all our experiences, even the negative ones that feel like “death,” are gifts “from beyond.”  They can be a guide to help us learn and grow.  It’s easy for us to see how the good things that come our way help us to learn and grow, but it is especially the difficult things—the “crowd of sorrows,” “The dark thought, the shame, the malice” that help us learn and grow.  “Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in…” says Rumi.  “Go out and meet these difficult experiences; embrace them, welcome them in!”  For when we do, then we have the possibility of living our lives without fear, in freedom and with joy.

Which is exactly the experience of Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  Paul knew, as did Rumi, the secret of welcoming and entertaining each morning’s “new arrivals,” however dark.  Paul wrote Philippians in the “second half of life;” he had glimpsed his final horizon.  Paul writes from prison, unsure of his fate.  In Philippians Paul expresses an acceptance—he embraces!—whatever may come.  As we heard last week:

To me, living is Christ and dying is gain… and I do not know which I prefer…

As we will hear next week:

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul is ready to welcome and entertain whatever comes, be it life or death.  And we learn in Philippians that Paul’s acceptance of death opens up in him a place of joy.  Philippians is shot through with joy.  As we heard this morning:

Make my joy complete… Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

As we will hear later this month:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice!

If we are able to accept, even embrace, death in everyday life, then we, too, have the possibility of living our lives as did Paul: without fear, in freedom and with joy.

Coming to this place of freedom is not easy, but I wonder if we—with God’s help—might learn to go out and meet whatever “guests” may come.  I wonder if we can welcome both joys and sorrows, both gains and losses, and embrace them, like Rumi, like Paul, like Christ.  For then we, too, might have the mind of Christ; for then we, too, might be set free from the fear of death; for then we might know joy; for then we might live our lives fearlessly in service of Christ and the Gospel.  Which is the most satisfying one for us humans to live.

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