A sermon preached on Sunday, January 4, 2009 based upon Matthew 2:1 – 11, entitled “The Quest to Find One’s Soul”.
Sometimes, I find it helpful think in terms of getting in touch with “one’s soul,” rather than getting in touch “with God.” The reason for this is that it is easy for God to become a mere abstraction, a concept, referring to something “out there“, “far away.”
Jesus said, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, but to lose his or her soul?” pointing to the fact that it is easy to lose contact with one’s soul. Religion, at its best, assists people in becoming fully human with souls in tact, or as John Wesley put it, having our hearts strangely warmed.
It is quite possible, however to lose your soul while clinging to some abstract concept of God. Unfortunately, religious institutions often come to embody this sort of fraudulence — clinging to their power and to rigid doctrines, closing itself off to the Holy Spirit that moves like the wind.
The soul, like God is tough to define. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Nobody know what the soul is, it comes and goes like the wind over the water.” “Soul” involves our most authentic, truest self. In our common language we may speak of a person appearing “fake”, while another strikes as trustworthy — the real deal, referencing that quality of soul. Our truest self is who God created us to be. The perpetual temptation in this world is to be somebody other than who we truly are, and in doing so, to lose our soul.
The soul involves the capacity within us to sense God’s presence or absence. Soul gives life its depth; without soulfulness, we are doomed to live superficially. You can gain the whole world, as Jesus said, accumulate enormous wealth and power and success but nonetheless live a shallow, meaningless life.
In this great old story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, we find two depictions of distinctly different relationships to the soul. On the positive side there are the magi, or wise men. They are often referred to “kings”, which they weren’t, though they were definitely upper class. While the mass of people in this world were constrained to eak out a living by back breaking labor, the magi had the leisure wealth brings to devote themselves to study.
“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know,”
says Mary Oliver, “that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” The magi were unusually attentive. They paid attention. Outwardly, they noticed something beyond themselves that others overlooked — the rising of a new star in the sky.
They were also attentive to their inner life, and in particular, the peculiar longing that arose within them to follow the star; a holy emptiness that required that they set forth on a great journey — one that would be long and hard and often take them way out of their “comfort zone.” It would be an inherently humbling expedition, bringing these refined men with their exalted thoughts “down to earth,“ both literally and figuratively — sleeping for nights on end on the ground, standing shoulder to shoulder with all of humanity struggling to survive.
The other relationship to the soul depicted in our story is that of King Herod, who has clearly lost his soul. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” and what is true for a mere rich man is all the more true for a king. Herod has become totally identified with his position in life — his status as king with all the power and privilege that goes with it. If he were asked the question, “who are you apart from being ‘the king‘”? he would have no answer.
And so it is striking that Herod’s response to the news brought by the magi that a new king has been born is pure and simple terror. Now, on one level, it seems absurd for Herod to be so afraid — terrified, essentially of a baby, of all things. And if he could somehow recognize the absurdity of his fear, there would be hope for him. But on another level, his fear makes perfect sense. If in his mind his life doesn’t exist apart from being the king, then the news of a baby born to take his place threatens him with absolute oblivion.
Well, what to do with his fear? What are we to do with our fear? There seems to me two basic possibilities. First, do that which Herod did: focus immediately on removing the object that evokes the fear. Through whatever means it takes, do away with the baby. Kill the child, and presumably the fear will go away. This leads Herod into deception, manipulation, cruelty — all of which are further signs of the loss of the soul. He becomes the consummate faker; pretending to the magi to be a fellow pilgrim who wants only to pay homage to the new born king.
An interesting detail of the story is that not only Herod, but “all of Jerusalem” reacts with fear to the news of the new born king. Why would this be so? The “Jerusalem” being referred to here is the whole institution that has aligned itself underneath Herod; all those who find their station and identity through their allegiance to Herod.
We are accustomed to thinking of there being some sort of separation of religion and state, but in Herod‘s day, there was no separation — the religious, political and economic systems were all tied up together, and Herod sat at the top of it all. The religious institution is threatened by the birth of the holy child; it pretends to assist people in making contact with God, but in actuality, it is devoted to avoiding contact with God.
So, the knee jerk reaction of Herod to his fear is the common one: the fear is intolerable, and so the apparent source of our fear must disappear. There are two ways to do this: One, flee from the object of fear, sometimes a sensible thing to do. But the other way to make it go, as Herod tries to do with the baby.
But what if the fear itself isn’t the enemy it first appears to be? What if the fear is in fact a message from the soul, asking once again for us to pay attention. That instead of either fleeing or fighting, we become still and listen. What might the fear be saying to us, if only we had ears to listen?
A lot of fear has been generated in the present global economic crisis, understandably so, and our first reaction would be to wish it all away. What we wouldn’t give for a magic wand to wave that would make prosperity instantly return? But the economic crisis that we are experiencing is directly related to a crisis in values that needs attending to. Something has been terribly wrong with the way we have been living as a society, the places we’ve put our trust, the things we have viewed as important.
To listen to our fear, to explore it, is to be led into questions that as a society we have large extent avoided. This are soulful questions: What really is important in life? What do I really need? What can be trusted?
Fear often has something to say about pride. Herod was a very prideful man, and his pride was a large part of what was blocking access to his soul. We already noticed how in order to embark on their journey, the magi had to surrender their pride.
When pride has a hold of us, we cling to an image of ourselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable. To be human however is to recognize the truth that we are indeed dependent — on other people — on the mysterious grace of God that runs the universe. It is to recognize the truth that we really are vulnerable — that we are in this thing called life with every other human being, and in truth, we are no better than any body else.
A mysterious thing happens when we face our fears directly: we discover that they are not so overwhelming after all. We were afraid that in facing our fear we would be demolished, that all that would be left would be the fear. But we find it isn’t so. We can be afraid, and yet not “be” our fear. We are in God’s hands, and although that doesn’t mean nothing bad can ever happen, on the deepest level, we sense we will be all right.
Sometimes perfectionism gets in the way of contacting our souls. We want to make an offering of our lives, but perfectionism keeps us from giving freely. A bit of a poem by Leonard Cohen caught my ear this week:
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in every thing. That’s how the light get through.”