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Wisdom for Dummies, Chapter Three: Know Yourself

September 13, 2009

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 15     Mark 8:27-38


All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. I’m leavin’ on a jet plane. Well, not immediately, but in a couple of hours. So my thoughts are on the country of my birth, the home of my children and grandchildren. They are sad thoughts.


When Barack Obama got elected many of you asked if I would go back now that Bush was gone. My answer then was no, I’m proud of my country overcoming its racist past. I’m hopeful that the damage done to it and the world in the last 30 years will begin to be undone, but Aotearoa New Zealand is my home now. 


If you asked me today, my answer would be “No way! Not on a bet.” As I read on the web of the hatred and self-destructive ravings of the conservative minority at town hall meetings resisting health care reform that would be in their best interest I shake my head in disgust and despair. I am appalled by a media giving credence to Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their ilk as they challenge Obama’s birth certificate or denounce his encouraging speech to school children. I am chagrined when a member of congress calls the president a liar during one of the finest speeches I’ve ever heard. I can’t imagine living in the middle of such lunacy again. It is hard enough watching it on Fox from 5000 miles away. It seems too many of my fellow citizens have learned nothing from their support of Bush. Then there are the many progressives who are battering Obama from the left because he hasn’t waved a magic wand and made the world an enlightened nirvana in eight months. They only solidify my appreciation of my adopted home and my resolve to stay. Visit? Yes. Move back? No way!


But those feelings have not changed my feelings about President Obama. If anything, his refusal to triangulate his opponents by demonizing them or to play politics as usual has only made me more appreciative. His unflappable belief that we are all in this together convinces me that he is our first Zen President. And by “our” I mean the world’s. He has an understanding of today’s gospel that even the disciples didn’t have.


Let me put that in context. Last week Moana told us how the Syro-Phoenician woman got in Jesus’ face with her plight. It was a transformative moment for him as she engaged him in a place that was as far as he could be from Jerusalem spiritually, the land of the Gentiles. After that Jesus turns around and begins heading back to meet his uncertain fate. In the week since that distraught mother pointed out that even dogs get crumbs Jesus has fed the 5000 near Peter’s hometown of Capernaum. The crowds are growing with each healing as he continues south. We are half way through Mark’s Gospel and the miracle worker is as popular at this point as he is ever going to be. A day’s walk from Capernaum is the Roman outpost of Caesarea Philippi. While after his death it would become the intellectual centre of Judaism when Jerusalem is destroyed, on this occasion it is still an unclean place housing occupation forces that no good Jew would enter. It is here at the height of his popularity and face-to-face with the powers of oppression Jesus asks his first question of the disciples.   “Who do people say that I am?” 


It is a safe question, as it requires little from the disciples. They answer, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” I can imagine Jesus thinking or even saying aloud, “Is that so?” His follow up question is a more demanding, “But who do you say that I am?” 


It is a question a wisdom teacher would ask. It is a trick question because his disciples think the question is about Jesus. Do any of us think Jesus was having an identity crisis and needed reassurance from his followers? No, inside his question about him was one about them. He is challenging them to know themselves. Who are you? 


Before approaching the oracle at the temple of Apollo on the Greek isle of Delphi the seeker of answers to life’s questions would see carved over the entrance the Greek words for “Know Yourself.” Simple words often understood differently. It could simply mean know ourselves objectively. What are our habits, morals, temperament, ability to control anger, and other aspects of human behavior that we struggle with on a daily basis? Useful, but such knowledge will hardly answer the question of life’s meaning. 


A deeper understanding requires exploring our perceptions of reality. Both how we perceive it and what we see. Based on our previous examination of Wisdom for Dummies, we have learned that to have a true revolution of the spirit requires moving beyond seeing the world dualistically where we see only its parts and not the whole. Only by suppressing our ego will we discover our I AM consciousness.


It is to this level of consciousness that Jesus hopes to bring his disciples when he asks his question within a question. While preachers for millennia have praised Peter for his answer, “You are the Messiah,” as if he finally got it, I think Jesus groaned, “Is that so?” That they still didn’t get it is why I suspect Jesus told his disciples to keep it a secret.


It was the wrong answer because it revealed that Peter still didn’t know himself. He still thought he needed a saviour. The messiah in Jewish thought was not just God’s fair-haired child, he was going to save the oppressed from their overlords. He was going to end hunger. He was going to be the ultimate answer to health care for all. For Peter it was all about Jesus doing the doing, not Peter. While he liked sitting close to power, he did not see himself as the seat of power. He did not yet know his “I AM” consciousness.


At this moment Jesus probably wished he could have used Obama’s line during the campaign, “Contrary to popular opinion, I was not born in a manger.” Instead he chose to give a discourse on denial of self in which he never once referred to himself as the Messiah, a saviour. Even that we get wrong. We too often hear self-denial as being about giving up earthly things; as some kind of undesirable loss. A story told about Mother Theresa gives us a different insight.


A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, "Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!" Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks. Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. "So you say I have given up everything?" she said quietly. The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. "Oh, my dear man," she said, "you are so wrong. It isn't I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!" To the businessman's total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.


This story points out that denial of our ego is not what’s hard—it is its own reward. What is difficult is living in a world where many have not and may never understand you when you have, even those who are your family and friends. It is likely, through their ego induced dualism, they may see you as a threat. They may condemn you for not meeting their self-centred expectations. They may flee from you like the plump businessman or seek to do you harm. You may become an object of hatred; despised and reviled. In my last sermon I said enlightenment isn’t all its cracked up to be because we can never see the world as we once did. There is another reason; crucifixion is not covered by your health plan.


Unlike Peter, I think Obama understands this. May we someday as well. He has managed to do what is the primary life task of us all. He knows himself, damn the price. He knows what Jesus showed us about our true selves in his intentional walk to Jerusalem. With that knowledge he can’t walk away either. Like Jesus he knows this is not about him. He knows the truth of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s opening words of his poem with a title borrowed from the temple on Delphi, Know yourself:


If thou canst bear

Strong meat of simple truth

If thou durst my words compare

With what thou thinkest in my soul’s free youth,

Then take this fact unto thy soul,-----

It is no metaphor nor parable,

It is unknown to thousands, and to thee;

Yet there is God.

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