Sermon preached by Revd Dr James Heard on Sunday 20th September 2015
What do we do with our egos, our desire to achieve, to be noticed, to make our mark on the world, to be held in high esteem, to be honoured? The instinctive desire to compete, to be better than others – a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct – is described by the famous Gore Vidal quote: ‘Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.’ It is sometimes put in a different way: ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ In our Gospel reading, the godly disciples of Jesus were wondering who was going to be the greatest amongst them. Who was the most important? Who were going to be in his cabinet, who were going to sit on Jesus left and right in the new kingdom? Instead, Jesus describes a different mode of being, and rather than talk about power and prestige, Jesus speaks about serving. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ It is becoming child-like, for whom accomplishments, greatness, status, or pretensions mean nothing. And Jesus invites us to welcome every person in the same manner, without regard for their worldly importance.
New York Times columnist David Brooks has written a book entitled The Road to Character in which this theme is explored. He contrasts eulogy virtues like kindness, faithfulness and humility with what he calls resume virtues - the kind of things we put on our CV. He’s convinced that both eulogy virtues and resume virtues take work to develop, but is worried that western society pushes us to put our efforts into the ones that will help improve our careers, not our characters.
He addresses the age old question- what makes a good life? How we can go deeper amongst the clamour of a culture that defines us by how ‘successful’ we are – success being defined by what we earn, own or look like? He argues that we need virtues like ‘humility, sympathy, honest self-confrontation’ to build character. His quest is to identify the virtues that help an individual become ‘deep… rooted in something spiritual and permanent’.
David Brook’s call for us to do the hard work of developing character isn't really controversial. Deep down we know that the real legacies of our lives aren’t job titles, academic achievements, or amount of twitter followers. But how do we develop the eulogy virtues, when the gravitational pull of our ego is so strong?
Whilst the book is written for the secular market, Brooks is open to the idea that we need God’s help. Perhaps we might add we also need the support, encouragement and help of the church community, because change happens through vulnerable, committed relationships. To overcome the tyrant self we must confess our frailty and darkest tendencies. ‘Behavioural science is beginning to add evidence to what religions have long understood - virtue develops best in relational communities. Not short term communities of self interest made up of “people like us”, but awkward, diverse, grace filled communities, established for the long term.’ (Elizabeth Oldfield)
When it comes to eulogy virtues, we want to be remembered not for our fleeting achievements but our depth of character, how we loved, showed compassion, served others.
Brook’s book has strong resonance with another book I’m reading – Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar. His recent book is entitled Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. He describes our life journey as having two halves – both necessary but very different. The first half of life is all about building: constructing up an identity, getting qualifications, establishing professional competence. It is about establishing and achieving. Rohr would say our society is largely a first-half of life society. These first half tasks are important. However, there is another task, which many never get to. We build these homes and structures to provide security and give confidence, and so it’s only natural to want to stay within the boundaries of what is comfortable and what is known.
Rohr writes: ‘Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey. We are more struggling to survive than to thrive, more just “getting through” or trying to get to the top than finding out what is really at the top or was already at the bottom. Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” (Rohr p. 18)
Home is warm and comfortable which is why it often takes the experience of falling, of failing or losing control to be launched out of the comfortable first half task of life into a further journey. The disciples in today’s gospel were clearly in first half of life; however, they would soon, through their failure, embark on the next dimension. Some kind of falling is programmed in to the journey. And yet through the experience of death comes new life. Falling, lying helpless on the ground offers a new, radical and dependent perspective. The prodigal who leaves home, spectacularly fails and then returns with a newfound appreciation for all that home is and that home means.
Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues and letting go of our physical life, but Rohr’s book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, to the mystery that is God.
Rohr offers two crucial points for the experience of falling, failing, crisis. First, God has not abandoned you, even if you are sure that God has. Second, "We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right." And its worth remembering that no journey is linear – we move back and forth between the halves; perhaps we cycle through them, over and over again.
Whether or not you agree with Rohr’s thesis, we are all invited on a journey – a journey towards the light – and there are guiding lights to help us along our way – saints to inspire us, books to guide us, a community to belong to and to encourage us, as well as friends to challenges us. And if we are going to shines as lights in the world, which is our baptism vocation, we must stay connected to source of all life and love. As Desmond Tutu puts it: “We are only the light bulbs and our job is just to remain screwed in!”
David Brooks, The Road to Character
Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards
Elizabeth Oldfield, ‘Thought for the Day’ 04/06/15