Chisel and Mallet

Matthew 16:24-28

Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist — a dust coated desert preacher content with dwelling in the wilderness, dawning rags for clothing, and dining on bugs for dinner — we see a movement in the early church of devout believers seeking out a life of voluntary poverty and isolation. In the wake of emperor Constantine endorsing Christianity as the official religion of the empire, some Christians felt that their tradition became corrupted, lukewarm, and that living a truly faithful, holy life proved more and more difficult as religion allied with imperialism. In response, a contingent of early Christians endeavored to practice a lifestyle deprived of the pleasures and privileges of society in favor of the struggle and solitude of the desert. Their reasoning was that the difficulty of a dusty wasteland was more conducive to following Christ, for the temptations of distraction and comfort and self importance proved scarce.

The life of these desert ascetics was a hard one, but that was the point — for, to them, the path to the Divine was paved with the sufferings of self denial. The severity of such denial and deprivation among these desert hermits varied, but in its most extreme expression, some engaged in practices like intentional starvation and exposure to the elements, self flagellation, and even self mutilation. Regardless of intensity, though, the conclusion was the same: that devotion to the sacred requires the denial of the self.

In our scripture for today, we hear Jesus seemingly affirm a similar perspective. As we listen to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, I invite us to consider the question: what does it mean to deny ourselves?

Congregational Response:

What does it mean to deny ourselves?

  • Recognizing our interdependence
  • Denying self sufficiency and embracing our humility
  • Remaining open to God’s love and the Spirit’s movement
  • Answering the call to participate in what God is doing
  • Denying the ego and dismantling systems of superiority/inferiority

Theological Reflection: 

With chisel and mallet, Matthew Simmonds chips away at a chunk of rough cut marble. As sweat beads on his brow, the vision of what could be underneath the swirls of stone slowly reveals its form — millennia of compressed limestone strike by strike made into something new from the material that has always lied within. Specializing in medieval art and architecture, Simmonds’ background in art history and stone carving led him to a passion for architectural restoration — finding a vocation in repairing and refining the weathered and worn stone of famous monuments and cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey, and bringing them back to their former glory. It was not until his reassignment to Italy in 1997, though, that his gift for architectural vision found its medium in sculpting on a much smaller scale.

Gleaming inspiration from his interest and work in the masonry of religious structures, Simmonds began sculpting scaled down models of the vaulted ceilings, columned archways, and hollowed out halls that you would commonly see in traditional, full sized cathedrals and other sacred architecture. His work looks as if you could walk within it, climb the stairs, lean against its looming columns, and gaze out the ornate windows despite being no larger than a foot or two high. Housed in rough edged marble chunks are intricate snapshots of rooms and corridors and gathering spaces of temples and chapels in three dimensions that can fit on a table. When interviewed, Simmonds remarked that his goal is to “create the sensibility these buildings convey [but] in a small internal world inside the stone,” inspired by the “potential that exists in a solid, often once living, material where the creative process involves only the removal of material.”

The 14th century German Catholic theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, posited, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.” In a world fraught with consumerism and an obsession with possession, Meister Eckhart speaks to how a similar mentality leaks into the spiritual life and leads to the mistaken belief that the way to God is paved by stacking brick on top of brick of top of ourselves — covering what was before with something more, something other. A radical incarnationalist, Eckhart challenges the ego’s addiction to addition, which convinces us that our worth is predicated on how much more we are able to accumulate as if our soul is a bank account and the Spirit is a deposit. With such a mentality, we end up treating spirituality like an infomercial and our salvation like a product: “Call the number on the screen, and for only 3 payments of $19.99, God’s love can be yours, too!” For Eckhart, it’s not about acquiring assets that we can cash in later for spiritual returns; it’s not about acquisition at all but, rather, the liquidation of everything that no longer resembles our true identity as we uncover what has always been there from the very beginning.

Jesus tells his disciples, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus’s language around self denial and, later in scripture, Paul’s language around dying to the self, have been taken and used to imply that the core of who we are is something to be diminished, degraded, devalued, destroyed, necessitating adding something else in its place. Some veins of theology take this to mean that the self is to be despised and deprived, fueling the passions of ascetics who starve themselves, penitents who punish themselves, and ecstatics who try to escape themselves. And if this verse was the only verse we were to read in scripture, this kind of logic would make sense. However, scripture cannot be read in isolation.

We cannot read this verse in isolation of Genesis 1, in which “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good,” or Psalm 139, which affirms, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We cannot read this verse in isolation of Ephesians 2, which says, “For we are what God has made us,” or 1 Corinthians 6, which says “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” We cannot read this verse in isolation of Jesus’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” in Mark 12, nor in isolation of his declaration that “the Kin-dom of God is within you” in Luke 17. We cannot read self denial apart from the Divine love imparted upon all creation from the very beginning.

Self denial does not mean deprivation because of our depravity. It means denying the parts of ourselves that try to convince us that we could be anything other than who God says we are. It means denying the false self, denying the small self, denying the self that tries to persuade us into believing that we are more or less than anyone else and that God lied when the Divine declared creation good. Self denial is not about reducing the self to rubble; it’s about remembering our truest self as a dwelling place of the Divine — removing the layers of hardened stone that the world tells us is our true identity which we must add on to in order to be lovable. It’s about remembering that at our deepest depths, atop the sediment on the sea floor of our soul, the Divines takes up residence, where lies an entire cathedral, sacred and expansive, ever inviting us to the altar of our own heart to remember our own belovedness.

In order to get there, though, we must go through the vulnerable process of letting go of the pieces of ourselves that trick us into thinking we are anything other than a child of God — already loved, no addition necessary. For there is no amount of addition that would ever amount to God’s eternal love for us. Eckhart says, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.” It’s a process of shedding, layer by layer, the labels and lies and masks and mirages until we reach the center of our truest being where God already resides in the sanctuary of our soul, so we might live a life from such a place of utter vulnerability and authenticity.

Church, let us take up chisel and mallet and chip away at the chunks of a shallow identity imposed upon us by a suffering world until we reach the architecture of our inmost being — the cathedral that has always been there within each of us awaiting its carving, ever calling us home to the embrace of a loving God.