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I have vivid memories of being in kindergarten playing with my friends at recess. Our school classrooms were a series of cottages with a playground behind them. Years later, two of those cottages became a restaurant on the main highway called “The Little Pig,” but that is another story for another day.
When we had recess, we would go outside and swing and slide. And we would run and do things that five and six year-olds do.
The playground spot also had this mound in the middle of it, a raised hill of dirt that, to our little eyes seemed like Kilimanjaro but in reality was probably only two feet tall. We would instinctively play “King of the Mountain,” with one another. Some poor soul went first, climbed to the top, and proclaimed himself (not surprisingly most of these were us boys) “King of the Mountain.” Then, the game was on. We did our best to try to knock each other down and position ourselves to have the position of power.
The old saying is quite true: “The more things change the more they stay the same.”
So much of the human experience seems like a warped game of “King of the Mountain.” People jockey for position and prestige, and living in the zero-sum world in which we live, that means someone else has to fall down in order for us to assume the position of power.
This is why Jesus was so radical, and, I would say this is why we don’t really delve into the deeper dimensions of Christian practice but rather skirt around the edges with an enculturated version of American or Western Christianism. Here me out…
We see in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus telling those around him:
If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8).
Do we have any idea how radical this really is? How countercultural? Or, do we just hear it and then move on?
Jesus seems quite clear that, in the call to discipleship, there is an explicit call to deny oneself. To recognize that there is, within us, this impulse to treat all of life like a game of “King of the Mountain” and see others as objects to be overcome, overpowered, to position ourselves in a zero-sum game. Jesus calls us to be aware of this gravity that pulls us back toward this posture of scarcity and arrogance. Friends, we’re experiencing this all over the place right now.
After the sermon, our liturgy will move on to the Offertory, and perhaps it seems odd to you that the choir is going to sing a beautiful setting of The Magnificat in today’s service. I think Will’s choice is brilliant. When he brought this to me, I saw the way he had linked the images of Abraham and God’s promise, and I also saw the way that the fulfillment of God’s promise is laid alongside the call to “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.”
Lest we think this is a spiritual warrant for pulling someone down off whatever particular dirt pile we want to control, here’s the contemplative challenge inherent in The Magnificat.
Yes, we need to recognize how those in positions of power are responsible for the common good. Yes, we need to be aware of the way that people so often exploit other people. Yes, the challenging witness of the Biblical story shows God bringing the mighty down into positions of vulnerability. Think of the many stories of warped and misguided kings who did not remain kings for long, and think of the stories of those in places of poverty and oppression who are reminded of God’s promise and love for them.
There’s a reason that the Incarnation story places Jesus being born in a manger in a stable rather than in a palace. Again, this is radical stuff, folks.
So, there is a political dimension to The Magnificat. Yet, there is also a deeper, contemplative dimension to understanding just what is this “mighty” being “cast down from their thrones.”
Here’s what I want to offer to you this morning:
What the contemplative tradition teaches us is that each of us has, within us, this pull toward grasping for power and control. Thomas Keating reminds us of this, as do so many teachers and guides. Each of us has, to use archetypal language, a “high-chair tyrant” kicking and screaming to get our way and demand more and more.
This grasping high-chair tyrant within us all must be cast down from its throne.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
There we have it.
My friend Sarah Bachelard, who is an Anglican priest in Canberra, Australia, developed an intentional community there with several other people who wanted to lean into this contemplative dimension of our faith. Benedictus Church came out of this, an intentional space that focuses on how we are called to these deeper dimensions of our faith practice.
Sarah has written about this core call of discipleship, what she names as dispossession. Her words are as challenging as they are beautiful:
Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Mary, Peter, and Paul—our tradition is filled with the stories of those who have consented to this movement of dispossession, to an undoing of the identity and forms of belonging they had known, so as to receive their lives, their very selves as gift and call. Discipleship is about saying yes to this invitation to hand yourself over and to the constant vulnerability of living responsively, our security sources in our relation to God and not in possessions or achievements of our own.
I remember those days being five and six quite clearly. I remember the thrill of pulling someone else down and claiming my place on top of that little dirt pile, beaming down at the faces of all those I had conquered.
The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
Just in case you can see these connections, as an aside that is not really an aside, we’re never going to get to the level of conversation we need to get to as a country, with what seems to be such a fetish with objects of violence and aggression until we are willing to share in a conversation about our warped understanding of power. What power is. What power is for. What power does. And, ultimately, according to Jesus, how we understand power in the light of the call to “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.”
That is the conversation we need to have, and we need to recognize that action is needed with this senseless and sinful violence. We need action on sane gun restrictions, on violent video games, on warped and abusive music, on irresponsible use of social media, and on an honest conversation about the responsibilities of being a parent. All of it.
And we need conversations about how we understand healthy masculinity and reject oppressive patriarchy. We need that conversation too.
We need to talk about responsible understandings of the second amendment and the first and then keep going from there. All of it. It is time.
This is what it means to practice our faith as Christians. We embody it. Live it. Struggle with it. We don’t keep it compartmentalized between our eyeballs on one hand and only on Sundays on another.
If you will turn in your prayer books to page 302, I want to look at the promises we make during our Baptismal liturgy.
You’ll see there a series of questions. There are three renunciations that we say together, and, if you look closely, there is a movement in them. They are going in a certain direction.
If you would, join me in these:
Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Do you see the direction it is going? We start by looking cosmically, then we look globally, then, we look personally.
We are called to pay attention to those tendencies within ourselves, our “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.”
We don’t have rights so that we can just do whatever the heck we want to do. Again, we don’t have rights so that we can just do whatever the heck we want to do. We have rights so that we have the freedom to live responsible lives. It’s time we talk about that too.
And, I don’t care what political party you belong to: democrat, republican, socialist, libertarian, librarian, or vegetarian. I couldn’t care less. At the end of the day I am concerned that you understand that you belong to Jesus, to be blunt. At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves how our lives are embodying Christ’s call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. There you have it.
A part of us will resist. This is the realm of our high-chair tyrant. This is our fixation on power and control. This is our perpetual game of King of the Mountain. And it must stop.
At the end of the day, as disciples of Jesus Christ, that part of ourselves—our small self if you will—must be “cast down from its throne” for the sake of the transformation of consciousness that is, in the end, the point of it all.
 Sarah Bachelard, “Grand Poverty: The Mark of Silence,” private essay shared from the work of Benedictus Contemplative Church, Canberra, Australia, October 10, 2015.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Sermon #5 in the Praying Shapes Our Lives Series
Lent II, Year B
February 25, 2018