Tag Archives: Labyrinth

Purgation: Begin by Letting Go

A Sermon from 14 October 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  19 You know the commandments:  ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words.  But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


If you ever have used the prayer tool called the labyrinth, then you know about the Neoplatonic understanding of the spiritual journey as a three-fold path – the path from the letting go of purgation, through the revelation of illumination, finally to the bliss of union.  Many students of scripture prefer to follow the biblical view of spirituality as a four-fold path.  A Way that begins with an understanding of our original blessedness in the Via Positiva, through the letting go of the Via Negativa, to the birthing of the Via Creativa, which leads to renewal – a new creation in the Via Transformativa (Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, pp. 23, 26).  Both paths are ways of recognizing that the spiritual life moves through various predictable stages.  We do well to be aware of the ways lest the experiences of living drastically shock us when circumstances bring us to the next phase of the journey.

The labyrinth gives us a condensed experience of the entire spiritual journey.  It’s not any old backyard maze.  Standing at the opening of the labyrinth; one sees a large, four-quadrant circle having anywhere from three to eleven circuits or paths moving from the outside of the circle to the inside.  As an ancient tool for experiencing the spiritual journey, those who walk or trace a labyrinth give themselves over to about 30-60 minutes to go deeper with God.  I always encourage those using a labyrinth to go slow.  If walking one, unite each step with your breath in order to calm yourself enough to recognize the movement of Spirit within.  In every step, be deliberate.  Don’t worry that you think you’re about to be at the middle, then turn the next corner to find the path before you taking you far away from the center.  Feeling like you’re heading almost all the way back to the beginning.  The spiritual life’s like that.  The point is to keep walking.

As we enter the labyrinth, we let go.  Let go of the busy-ness of the day.  Let go of the worries that constantly gnaw.  Let go of any guilt we have over things done and things left undone.  It’s the purgation of the three-fold path or the Via Negativa of the four-fold one.  The critical phase of the journey.  Without which we wouldn’t get very far.  Because think about it:  if we won’t let go.  If we don’t purge things from our lives that continually distract, we’ll never hear the whispers of God’s Spirit.  Without purgation, nothing much will take place at the center of a labyrinth other than the continual chatter of the loop that runs in our head.  If we don’t let go – if we don’t release from whatever gets in the way of our daily connection to God – we can’t receive what God eagerly wants to give us:  new insights for the journey, a felt sense of the Presence of the Holy with us, peace amid life’s storms.  Nothing new will be born if we refuse what can be scary; but is the absolutely necessary step of letting go whatever stands between us and the incredible experience of union with the LORD our God.

The Master spiritual teacher Jesus knew the Way.  He knew that no matter how difficult the letting go can be, that release must happen.  The gospel of Mark shows us as it opens with Jesus’ first public words.  The invitation is to let go:  “The time is fulfilled,” the gospel reads.  “And the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus might as well have said:  “let go!”  Let go of the way you have been going.  Let go of whatever is separating you from God.  Let go of whatever keeps you here and now today from living in the kingdom of God.  . . .  No sooner is the proclamation made in general – the gospel not revealing to whom Jesus directed his first public words.  No sooner does the One baptized as God’s Beloved charge anyone who would hear to release whatever they must; than we’re told that Jesus passes along the sea of Galilee saying these words to Simon and his brother Andrew:  “Follow me.”  He goes a little farther around the shoreline to say to other fishermen, James and John:  “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-20).  Surely the sea was dotted that day with those fishing the waters.  We know father Zebedee and several hired hands were in the boat.  The miraculous thing is, four men let go.  They release themselves from their professions and follow along behind the Christ.  They don’t know where they are heading.  That’s exactly what the Via Negativa is like.  Letting go is like wandering around in the darkness a while until what will unfold unfolds.  Releasing what is known, something else has a chance to grow.

With these fishermen, Jesus continues on his journey.  Until the gospel of Mark records in the tenth chapter that a man runs up to Jesus.  He kneels at his feet.  It seems the man wants union.  He longs for eternal life.  He’s followed the religious rules.  Now he wants something More.  Maybe he’s seen it in the life of Christ.  Teaching with profound wisdom.  Making significant differences in the lives of so very many people.  An authority and passion and surge of Life that only comes from deep connection with the Divine.  The man wants it too.  Eternal Life – which isn’t understood in the original language as some sort of heaven in a hereafter.  It’s more a sense of abundant, alive Life now.  Dwelling deeply with God in the culmination of the three and four-fold spiritual paths.  Union.  Communion with the One who created, redeems, and sustains.  Such connection that truly changes lives – blessedly transforming.  The man at Jesus’ feet wants that.  . . .  Inviting him onto the path, Jesus has to tell him to let go.  It’s the first step – the one that gets replicated daily in life behind the Christ.  . . .  The man at Jesus’ feet lacks the willingness to enter the labyrinth.  To purge himself of what is getting in his way of life with God.  He refuses to let go.

What about us?  For those who want to be Christ’s disciples – for those who desire to lead a life worthy of him; are we willing to let go?  And I’m not talking about going out to sell all we have as the way of our release.  Like the man in the gospel, physical possessions might be the block for some of us.  Our wealth might be what gets in our way of life with God.  But what about those of us stuck in a sense that we never could be good enough to be in deep union with God?  What about those of us stuck in our heads – in our left, rational brain so that we can’t logically figure out how being last means being first?  What about those of us who are filling that inner longing with everything else but intimacy with God?  What about those of us who are too afraid of that moment after release – those scary seconds that could last a very long time.  When we could grope in darkness seemingly forever before illumination ever comes.  Do we have the courage to let go?

A man stops Jesus on his journey because he really, really, really wants deep union with God – here and now and forever after.  Shocked at the first step, he has no concept of the spiritual path.  For as an infamous Thirteenth Century theologian once said:  “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (Meister Eckhart quoted by Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, p. 132).  For only that which is empty can be filled.  Only that which is last can be first.

Does it seem unlikely for us?  An impossible first step to let go?  Thanks be to God, Christ declared:  All things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).  . . .  Rumor has it, the words remained with him on a cross.  Just before his final release gave way to a glorious new morn’!  For that, we eternally give great thanks!

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

12 October 2014 sermon — Psalm 106 & Exodus 32

Dying or Pregnant?
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
12 October 2014 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Psalm 106:1-7 (NRS)
Psalm 106:19-22 (NRS)
Exodus 32:1-14 (NRS)

This week a blog post entitled “Transition Hurts” (achurchforstarvingartists@wordpress.com) contained a link to a very insightful video. In 2011, The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a pastor of a small, vibrant church near Washington D.C., created a video response to refute a letter to the PCUSA in which several pastors diagnosed us as deathly ill (We Are Presbyterian 2011 – A New “Diagnosis” for the Church at: vimeo.com). They had all the numerical facts: declining membership, dilapidated buildings, fewer adult baptisms, etc., etc., etc. Rev. Dana admitted that she had no desire to argue with their facts. Instead, she questioned their diagnosis. When she considers our churches, she doesn’t see the metaphor of death with all the symptoms that go with it. And even if she did, would that be so bad? We’re the Easter people who worship the living God whose final surprise comes only after death. In God’s hands, it’s all going to be all right. Nonetheless, Rev. Dana likens what she sees among us not to death, but as a time in which we are pregnant. Gestating. Awaiting the birth of something new. Now, Rev. Dana was sensitive to the fact that not all of us will resonate with this metaphor. Some of us, or our spouses, never have been pregnant out of choice or heart-breaking circumstances. Some of us may not want to be pregnant – facing the birth of something new. Some of us grieve the loss of a child or are trying right now to give birth to something new in our lives. We need a sensitivity with one another about our experiences around pregnancy. Still, Rev. Dana jumped in to compare what she’s seeing among so many Presbyterian churches not to death, but to being pregnant.

Think about it. Fatigue is typical in pregnancy – something many churches are feeling these days. We know we have fewer people among us than we might have had at the height of American Presbyterianism in the 1950s and 1960s when people flocked to our sanctuaries each week. Many churches tire themselves out as they try to do and be what they did and were some 50 years ago. It’s exhausting trying to keep on being something we no longer are – which is something quite common to pregnancy when major changes are growing within a body. . . . Dana reminds that queasiness is a part of pregnancy – also known as morning sickness. She pinpoints this in the church. Our stomachs might be churning when we think about how we are to relate to this changing world. Everything from younger generations whose choices we can’t always understand, to technology we’re not quite sure how to utilize in order to reach them, to cultural values we believe to be contrary to the gospel. It can make us sick to our stomachs as we wonder how we are to live in this world without being co-opted by the ways of it? How we are to keep on giving witness to the good news of Jesus Christ among families, friends, neighbors, and strangers who seem to be so very different from us? And of course the anxiety. What parent really is ready for the birth of their baby? Will we be able to bring this new thing to life? Will we respond well to its needs? Are we able to guide this new thing into the fullness of its being as God intends? Every parent experiences at least a little angst along the way as many of us might be feeling these days about the future of the church. Pregnancy is a leap into the unknown – God alone being the One who knows what is being brought to life. . . . Considering the evidence, it just might be that we as a church aren’t deathly ill as so many fear in our death-phobic society. Perhaps instead, we are pregnant.

I can’t help but see the Israelites in the wilderness in this way. God is trying to make them into a new thing. Trying to make a covenant community out of a tribe of folks who had been slaves in Egypt. God wants them to be free for worship and service as they shine to bring light to all nations. They wander in the wilderness for 40 years – a lot longer pregnancy than any of us ever hope to undergo. But there they are those forty years in order to be made into a people who joyfully, gratefully rely upon the LORD God as their Sovereign, not Pharaoh. As a people they are in a time of pregnancy – awaiting the birth of the new thing they will become through the work of God among them. . . . Psalm 106 lets it be known that they would not allow God to be up to that work. Again and again in their trek to freedom, they fear death. They cry out against Moses and Aaron on more than one occasion. They whine that it was better back in Egypt. They even go so far as to do what they do as recorded in Exodus 32. A great lesson to us of what NOT to do when you are expecting. When Moses goes to be with God to hear what they need to know from God to be who God is making them to be, what do they do? They panic. They let their anxiety get the best of them. In fear they turn on Aaron in order to demand something now that they can see and hold and put in their midst in order to cling ever so tightly to it. It’s like they’re not willing to wait any longer for an obscure God and an absent leader. The Psalm puts it this way: “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (Ps. 106:20-22). The LORD God has been working tirelessly for their benefit; to make them into something beautiful for the sake of God’s will for this world. But they mis-diagnosis their situation. Demanding instead a golden calf, they do not allow the space for God’s good work to be brought to fruition.

It brings us back to Rev. Dana’s diagnosis. Pregnancy. Gestation. This time of awaiting the birth of God’s something new. . . . A few of us walked a Labyrinth this week. It’s an ancient tool for prayer. A circular path with a way in, a center for stillness, and a way back out. In case you missed it, NaCoMe has one, or this one we went to is outdoors and always available for use. The thing that struck me in walking the Labyrinth this week is that the path unfolds before you. You don’t have to worry that you’ll get lost along the way in a Labyrinth. All you have to do is follow, step by step, the path that unfolds before you. It helps to keep yourself attuned to the present moment: alert. Watching for the turns. Noticing those walking the path with you. Not rushing forward to get to the center before it’s time. Not running out to get away from it all. Just step by step. Follow the path as it unfolds. . . . Pregnancy works kinda like that, right? Step by step. We have no control over the process. Once that spark of the new life begins, it grows as it will.

Of course, there are things we can do when pregnant to ensure a healthy new life – practices we can be about as we wait. For the pregnant church, prayer seems key during our pregnancy. And I’m not just talking about the kind of prayer where we do all the talking to God. But prayer where we as the body of Christ today listen for God’s word to us. Hear how God desires to unite us with God’s will for the world around us. It’s like Mother Mary’s pondering. All the things God speaks to our hearts regarding the new life God desires to bring into being today. . . . And, in contrast to the impatient golden-calf-making-folks, we can remember. They forgot, but we must remember. Rehearse with one another the marvelous ways God has set us free from our bondage – free from our enslavement to lives void of purpose. Free from ways that keep us separated from God and one another. What if we began telling one another the stories of how God somehow made a way in our lives – individually and collectively as a congregation? I mean how many of us have been to those places where we felt totally shattered due to the death of our loved one, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job. All seemed a painful, joy-less end. Yet here we are. Somehow, thanks be to God, we’re still gathered to give God praise. We must remember – not only the stories of how God worked through our faith ancestors as recorded in scripture, but also how the living God has worked through our lives making a way when there seemed to be none. . . . That’s our way to have hope. To rest assured that all shall be well. Indeed pregnancy can be scary – so many things can go wrong. But what a time of joy. What a time of waiting to greet the birth of this new thing growing within whatever it turns out to be. What a time of hope for all the ways God will work through us yet in being the light of love in a world ensnared by hate. In being the light of unity among people who desire division. In being a people of joy in the midst of a world pandering for more, and more, and more. . . . Something new awaits its birth among us, O church. Let us be ready to greet it in great joy!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)