I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House. I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves. It was a beautiful and melancholy experience. Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss. A time to remember. In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away. This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.
A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance. I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end. After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.” I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope. As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow. Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)
But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died. There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying. “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?
I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life. He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money. And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)
The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first. Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.
And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.
It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s the pattern at work in all the saints. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)
And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!
So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see? Does he see someone too full already? It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us. Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.
Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us. Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.” Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.
At times we may feel the burden of sin. Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse. There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.” I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’ And we say, “I can’t keep up! I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’
And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you. Let me take the weight off you. Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’
I love this time of year – the season of fall. Things seem to be falling and dying. But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.” And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery. We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.
And so with us. Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives. To let die all that does not give me life. To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.
Let it go. Learn from those gently falling leaves. And let it go.
Feast of St. Martin of Tours
St. Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, was almost universally unpopular among his fellow bishops. But the reasons for this unpopularity are also the reasons we remember his life and witness in the Church. He was strongly opposed to the suppression of heresy through the use of military intimidation or violence. Tragically, such suppression had become common by that point in the history of the early Church. Martin was also called to the monastic life, and refused to compromise this commitment after becoming bishop. The monastic movement in the Western Church was still new enough that this way of life must have made Martin seem even more eccentric and uncooperative with clerical business as usual. Finally, he lacked a formal Latin education and was not a member of the ruling class, having been trained from an early age as a soldier.
St. Martin is most frequently represented in sacred art wearing the military uniform of a soldier, seated on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a poorly clad beggar. It is a deeply archetypal image of compassion. We have seen so many images in children’s books, in movies, or in video games, of warriors on horseback committing acts of violent subjugation, slaying dragons or evil knights or foreign invaders. Even those who do so in the service of rescuing a helpless victim are seen slaying or beheading or trampling in the fulfillment of their virtuous mission. St. Martin inhabits this mythic genre, but with a crucial twist that confronts all that what we have been conditioned to see or expect in a warrior. St. Martin believed that spiritual warfare called for spiritual weapons. Foremost among these was his sacrificial generosity.
Isaiah 58:6-12 / Luke 18:18-30
I have no doubt that the rich ruler in today’s gospel approached Jesus with the best of intentions. I see no reason to assume he is using flattery or being sarcastic when he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” or that his question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – is meant to entrap Jesus or to test his theology. Nor do I see any reason to assume that his claim – “I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth” – is a sign of undue pride. I think he is a genuine seeker, who actually wants to deepen his relationship with God.