Practicing the Art of Detachment

Rev. Dr. Loraine McKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 8, 2012

Luke 14:25-33

We had finally arrived in Winnipeg. It was 15 years ago. We had left Toronto a week prior, taking our time to hike and camp along the beautiful Great Lakes. We had thought it odd that we hadn’t heard from the drivers of our moving van, as they had promised to let us know when they would arrive in Winnipeg, but we weren’t too worried. They must have been delayed for some reason. I had just handed in my doctoral thesis and we were about to start a new chapter in our lives with new jobs, a new house and a new community. We were ready and eager, and then we received the phone call from our friend Megumi Matsuo Saunders, Clark Saunder’s sister-in-law. There had been a fire on our moving van and it looked like we had lost everything.

We were stunned. My first grief was over our photo albums and recipes. It’s curious that recipes made it to the top of the list, but there you have it. But the emotions that followed took us by surprise. We were, of course, quite upset. But after the initial shock, my partner and I were surprised to feel a lightness of being. Perhaps it was because we only had student-quality furniture—Salvation Army style, as my cousin called it. Perhaps it was also because we knew insurance would kick in, but I think it was more than this. If for only a short time, we were suddenly free of attachments, of junk, even of the basics. As we slept on the floor in our sleeping bags, we felt unencumbered by possessions. We found out much later that anything that had been packed in boxes was saved. While we felt a tremendous relief for the things that were saved, we will never forget that surprising sense of relief from the things that we lost. For a brief time, we gained new insight into Jesus’ rather harsh words that none of us can become his disciple if we do not give up our possessions.

Our gospel lesson is one of Jesus’ more difficult ones. It is certainly not one that would draw in the crowds. Imagine a stranger sitting on our church steps telling the gathering crowd, “You must do three things to follow me. The first is to hate your father and mother, spouse and children, sister and brother; indeed to hate life itself. The second is to take up the cross—to be willing to be tortured. The third is to give away all of your possessions—to choose to live in abject poverty. Do these three things and then you can become my disciple.” I can’t think of a message that would be more off-putting than this.

If I heard someone in torn and dirty clothes, with a Messiah complex, saying this as he was sitting on the church steps, I would probably ask this person, politely, respectfully, to move along. My luck, the newspapers would print headlines the following day saying, “Church minister asks Jesus to move along.”

In my comfortable, middle-class life with a loving partner and with my own zest for life—I basically love life—it’s very hard for me to understand the attraction of such a message. This passage has inspired some people to take up vows of celibacy and poverty in their dedication to ministry. It has inspired some to risk torture in their work for justice. I honour these choices and give thanks for people who can do this and have done so.

But how can this biblical passage, how can these three teachings of Jesus, relate to the rest of us who do not choose such a literal response? Can we read it without simply watering down the gospel to a more palatable version?

Let’s look at how some of the other gospel writers have remembered Jesus’ teachings on this. In Matthew’s version, Jesus tells the crowd, “those who love father or mother, son or daughter more than me are not worthy of me.” Here, Matthew is talking about priorities of devotion—loving others is important, but not more important than loving God. But what does it mean to love God more than we love family?

I need a little more help to understand this passage from Luke. There is a third way to read it that offers this help. It’s the way the early church used to read the Bible. They weren’t worried about what the passage literally meant, or what the correct interpretation was, or even which version contained the authentic words of Jesus. Rather, they allowed biblical passages to inspire them to new heights of spirituality. They read the Bible devotionally, as wisdom’s door to the holy. Ironically, their ancient way of reading this very passage might best help us understand it in our day, almost 2 millennia later.

John Cassian was one of those early church leaders who helped the church read scripture in this devotional way. When he meditated upon this passage from Luke, he heard the Spirit telling him, “Let go of your attachments. Let go of what is transitory and visible. Contemplate instead on what is of God—desire what is unseen.”

Cassian—Saint Cassian, as the Orthodox know him—had a challenging life. At first things went well. He was born in 360 and made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem as a young adult, where he lived for three years in a monastic community. After that, he went to Egypt to live in another monastic community for about 15 years. And then trouble broke out. He and some 300 other monks fled for their lives to Constantinople where they asked the Patriarch, John Chrysostum, for protection.

As I think about the political crisis in Egypt that forced these 300 Orthodox monks to flee for their lives, I am taken to today’s crisis in Egypt that is particularly fearful for the Orthodox Christians.

After Saint Cassian resettled in Constantinople, life was good again for awhile, until trouble broke out there and the Patriarch Chrysostum was forced into exile. So Saint Cassian then fled to Rome. There, the pope made him a priest and sent him to Marsaille to establish eastern-style monasteries there for men and women. That is where he finally lived in peace until he died in 435.

It was there, in Marsaille, where he wrote most of his work, including meditations on scripture. When he reflected on this passage and wrote about giving up attachments, I’m sure he was remembering the times when he had to flee quickly—literally giving up everything as he became a refugee twice over in his life. Like any refugee today, he would have been terrified, homeless, landless, as he fled for his life. He learned that finding peace could not be dependent upon external things which come and go—possessions, a home, health, even relationships. No—Saint Cassian found that deep, lasting peace with God could only be found through detachment from the visible so that he could focus upon the invisible values of the spiritual life.

During my holidays last month, I went to Victoria where my family lives. My parents are needing to consider moving out of their house, with decades of accumulation and into a small apartment. We are trying to help them make this very difficult decision of if and when and how. How do you get rid of a room full of slides that tell a life-time of stories? What do you do with a house full of family paintings and possessions that hold little value to others? How do you move from a beloved house of love and life surrounded by a garden of beauty into a multi-level care institution?

Detachment can be an incredibly painful process. Yet without the ability to detach, the inevitable losses will be unbearable.

Detachment is not just about things. It’s also about passions and hopes, fears and doubts. During July, I spent many hours listening to the fears and hopes of “Westworthians.” I am trying to meet individually with all of our leaders and board members, and anyone else who would like to meet with me, to get a sense of where we need to go, what we feel God is calling us to do and be.

The good news is that I am finding a lot of passion. The challenge is that these passions are not necessarily aligned. I’m beginning to think that we may need to practice the art of detachment from our own passions enough that we can be receptive to the passions of each other; that we can be receptive to the passion of the Jesus. I’m not talking about a detachment of indifference or aloofness. Rather, it’s a detachment that does not invest our personal health or worth in a particular decision. It’s a detachment that says, “What we do matters deeply to me, but I’m willing to give up my personal agenda to consider others who differ from me and if the group decides to go in a different direction, I’ll be ok with that.”

For me, this passage from Luke is saying that if I can’t release my white-knuckle grip on that about which I’m most passionate, I will be squeezing out any room for the Spirit and I will not make a very good disciple of Jesus. A Zen proverb says, “The tighter you squeeze, the less you have.” St. Cassian might then visit us and gently ask us to unfurl our fists so that we may pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”