Breaking Free: Self-Sufficiency Denies Our Connection with God and Others Mark 8:31-38
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Self-sufficiency- why do we value it so much? It’s almost a given that we will be praised for being self-sufficient in this world, right? Merriam-Webster defines it as, “The ability to maintain oneself without outside aid.” Sounds pretty great, right? It does, just like lots of other ways of pretending that we don’t need God. If we would claim true self-sufficiency, what we’re claiming is that we’re powerful enough to redeem ourselves- able to maintain our salvation without outside aid. So many of the world’s messages reinforce this. “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, why don’t you?”
But just imagine if Jesus, the one human who actually could do this, imagine if he relied on his self-sufficiency. How would that have altered Christ’s story? He would never have made his way to the cross. “Save yourself, Jesus,” the Pharisees mock him as he takes his final breaths. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Jesus!” He doesn’t waste his energy explaining himself to those who can’t yet see that life is more valuable when given for the sake of others. Instead, with every dying breath, he fulfills the teaching we hear today. He sets his mind on the divine. Jesus knows suffering, and he embraces it- not because suffering is fun. Suffering is always excruciating. No, Jesus understands in a visceral way that his suffering comes before the transformation God intends for the world.
With this in mind, we enter the spiritual work of self-reflection for the sake of transformation, aided by the Enneagram as I introduced last Sunday. If you had a chance to read a bit about it using the links in the email, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you haven’t yet- it’s worth a look. In a sermon series like this, we won’t peel back all the layers of this spiritual tool, but the concepts are available to each of us, if we have the courage (and time) to engage them.
Richard Rohr’s work in The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective* is a hard read, because as Christians, it touches us at our core. His words illuminate the hard places in our hearts, the powers that keep us from true union with God. He gives these parts of us the name, sin. Why do this hard work of the spirit, especially if it exposes what we’d rather keep hidden? Jesus says it best: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” In other words, self-sufficiency sounds great on paper, it may even impress our neighbors, but if it means forfeiting a life of spiritual connection with God and others, is it really of value?
Here’s a bit from Rohr’s introductory remarks, I hope you find his words as compelling and convicting as I do:
Rohr says of his 30+ years working within churches, “I am convinced that most of our ministries have legitimated the autonomous self and even fortified it with all kinds of religious armor. Religious people are even harder to transform because they don’t think they need it.” If our religion leads us to a false notion that we are self-sufficient, then maybe even our religion is sinful.
Rohr offers, “The Enneagram is an ancient Christian tool for the discernment of spirits, the struggle with our capital sin, our false self, and the encounter with our True Self in God. Anything this powerful and this converting is sure to be fought and resisted by the egocentric self. We do not give up control to God easily.” We want to be self-sufficient! Which is why the work of spirituality is, “dismantling the separate self so it can fall into the Great Self of God.”
We need God, and we need others on this journey with God- to help us with the discernment of spirits. That’s what spiritual practices like this Enneagram work offer. A way to expose what is sin in our lives and where spirit is at work SO THAT we might embrace redemption as a way of life.
Rohr presents the Enneagram as a Christian spiritual tool, and he uses the language of “our unredeemed selves and our redeemed selves.” This langage blew me away with its simple honesty and its hope. Yes, we all have sin within us (and we never won’t), but if we so desire, we can become co-creators with Christ of our redemption stories. We can learn to discern spirit at work in our lives. We can accurately recognize the motivations that are sinful and those that are sanctified. But it takes real practice.
Here’s what we know from Jesus: Faith requires braving vulnerability for the sake of transformation. Rohr says, “human beings cannot see what they are not readied to see. We cannot hear what we have not been prepared to hear. [...] If we are unwilling to live askew for a while, to be set off balance, to wait on the ever spacious threshold, we remain in the same old room all our lives.”
Jesus’ teachings do exactly this for us… shake us up! Rohr says, “Christianity is probably the only religion in the world that teaches us, from the very cross, how to win by losing. It is always a hard sell. Especially for folks who are into strength, domination, winning, and enforcing conclusions. God’s restorative justice is much more patient, and finally much more transformative, than mere coercive obedience.”
Friends, this journey of Lent feels especially powerful, because we have ALL experienced suffering in a new way this year. Not all equally, to be sure, but all have suffered. And if we learn anything from Jesus’ journey to the cross its this: suffering holds promise for redemption.
Rohr: “We suffer, come through it transformed, and then we have a message! This is the clear Jesus pattern and why he trained his disciples in the necessary path of suffering. There is something, it seems, that we can know in no other way. We hope to bypass such suffering by being moral, by being orthodox, by being ritualistic, but his words remain the same to us: “The cup that I must drink, you must also drink.”
In whatever emotional space you’ve entered Lent this year, hear this good news. The work of redemption belongs to God, the path of redemption is held by Christ, and the gift of redemption is ours to co-create with the author and perfecter of our faith. In the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the particular motivations that each of us possess, and how we keep moving, one day at a time, from our “unredeemed selves” to our “redeemed selves” in Christ.
“Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In this hope and truth we do the hard spiritual work together this Lent. Amen.
*All quotes in this sermon are taken from the introduction of Rohr's book.
Breaking Free: God invites us to co-create our redemption story. Hebrews 12: 1-7
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children--
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?
So do you want the good news or bad news first? I always pick the bad news first- so let’s start there. You and I need to be disciplined. Ugh, gross, right? Who likes discipline? I don’t. Give me a choice between chocolate and broccoli? Chocolate wins. Chatting idly with a friend or listening to the story of a stranger? Chat, every time. Binge-watching my favorite TV show or reading the Bible? Binge-watching happens more than I would like to admit, friends.
So what, are chocolate, chatting and watching TV really all that bad? Well, not exactly. The bad news is that none of those things leads to better health or greater kindness or a changed heart. We humans don’t naturally gravitate toward disciplined living. Or at least, this human doesn’t. A choice between what is easy and what is hard? We choose the path of least resistance, right?
Here’s the thing: The author of Hebrews isn’t pulling any punches about what Jesus expects of us, you and I who choose everyday to live into our Christian identity. Cast aside sin. Run with perseverance. Sacrifice immediate gratification for something much greater: the discipline of the Lord. Gosh, that sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Why would we want to do this?
Well that’s the good news: discipline or spiritual disciplines ARE life-giving. It’s like this: chocolate is momentarily delicious, but broccoli gives us the strength to more fully pursue our passions. Chatting with a friend brings happiness, but creating a new friendship brings potential for greater joy. Binge-watching TV satisfies our hearts for a moment, but engaging in sacred stories transforms our hearts for a lifetime.
And if it's good news that spiritual disciplines are life-giving, it’s even greater news that each of us possess the capacity to actually practice a spiritual discipline. You do, and you likely already are! That’s a major part of our Christian tradition during the season of Lent. Disciplining our appetites, to make more room for the spirit to stir in us.
Now, I don’t think discipline for the sake of rule-keeping is what Jesus asks of us. Not at all, mostly because a lot of rules, especially religious ones, originated with humans, not God. That means I can’t prescribe for you the right spiritual discipline in your life. That’s up to you and God. What I can tell you, is what I know to be true about the result of spiritual disciplines.
They change our hearts. They change our lives. They create greater awareness of what is actually preventing us from experiencing wholeness. In short, they help us identify sin (meaning, all that keeps us from full connection with God, with others, and with our best selves) AND give us a framework for repenting of the sin and making a turn toward greater spiritual health.
So maybe it wasn’t actually bad news after all. You and I need to be disciplined, yes, and that CAN BE a really beautiful thing; enduring discipline, spiritual discipline is worth it, because it leads to a firmer identity in Christ, the author and perfector of our faith- the ONLY one who can lead us to lives of redemption.
Over the next 5 weeks, I’m going to introduce to you a helpful spiritual tool that can lead to greater self-awareness and transformation of our hearts. The tool is called the Enneagram, a philosophy of 9 different “personality types” that each respond to a primary motivation. Richard Rohr’s work in particular helps us see what can be sinful about our primary motivation AND what can be sanctified about it. The best part is this: WE HAVE AGENCY OVER SIN, but only when we learn to recognize it. Only when we discipline our spirits to be discerning and wise.
Becoming co-creators with Christ in our own redemption stories is possible when we are willing to engage the sin at work in us. In fact, self-reflection (and all the hard, vulnerable work involved) may just be the most important spiritual discipline that you and I will ever practice.
I’d like to leave you with this thought from Dietrich Koller, whose wisdom accompanies Richard Rohr’s book on the Enneagram. “Now no book and no counselor, no therapist and no Enneagram can spare me the work of transforming myself. Transformation is at once a task and a grace. Unless I work on myself, divine grace cannot become fruitful. And without divine grace, my work is in vain. Repentance is a process in which my work and God’s work becomes simultaneous. God grants conversion, but I have to make use of it and concretely convert. 2 Cor. 7:10 says, “this is a repentance that no one regrets,” And we don’t regret it, Koller says, because it actually creates healing and saving.”
I am excited to introduce you to the Enneagram, and I am even more excited to explore how YOU and I can become co-creators in our redemption stories. Welcome to the Lenten journey.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.