Between a Rock and the Devil

Matthew 16:21-28

Once upon a time there was a jester.  His job, of course, was to amuse the king, to tell him jokes and funny stories or even to find some comedy in affairs of state within reason.  Unfortunately, this particular jester loved puns.  Simply couldn’t resist them. “What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.”  “You should see my collection of candy canes.  They’re all in mint condition.”  “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”  That sort of thing. 

The king, for his part, hated puns.  Hated them.  And one day when there had been one pun too many he told the jester, “If I hear even one more pun out of you you’re a dead man.  I’m serious.  I’ll have you hanged.  Do you understand me?”  The jester could see that the king was serious,  so he simply said, “Yes, majesty. No more puns.  I promise on my life.”  

Just then the smell of smoke came wafting into the throne room through the open widow.  The jester looked out into the town and cried, “Oh no!  The bakery is on fire!”  Then without thinking added, “The poor baker.  His business is toast.”

The next morning as the jester stood on the gallows and the hangman slipped the rope over his head, a messenger came galloping up frantically.  “The king has decided to be merciful,” he called out to the jester.  “If you will swear never to utter another pun for as long as you live, he will spare your life.”

The jester looked out at the crowd who had come to witness his hanging, then with a wry little smile said, “Well, no noose is good noose.”  And that was the end of him.

I love that story because even with all its silliness it illustrates an important point about human nature:  we find it hard to change.  Even when the stakes are high, life-and-death high, we don’t like to change.  The jester in the story couldn’t bring himself to make a simple change even though his life was on the line.

We don’t like to change the way we do things.  And we are especially resistant to changing the way we think.  The way we think about ourselves.  The way we think about others.  The way we think about the world.  The way we think about God.

In this week’s gospel lesson, Simon Peter is having trouble changing his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a flash of insight, Simon Peter had responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”  That’s when Jesus in a play on words, a kind of pun, affirms that Simon is Petrus, a Rock, and that he will build his church on the petra, the bedrock of Peter’s confession.  

For a glowing moment, Peter is the star.  He had the right answer.  He’s A Rock.  But then things turn sideways for him. 

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This absolutely does not fit with Peter’s idea of Messiah.  Messiah may go to Jerusalem, but it won’t be to suffer and die.  Messiah, in Peter’s understanding, in is a conqueror.  Messiah will ride in at the head of an army, kick out the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Messiah will lead a revolution!  That’s how Peter understands it.  So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

I can sympathize with Peter.  I think we all can, at least to some extent.  He had this picture in his head of how he thought things should be and how he thought they should go.  But it wasn’t what Jesus had planned, what God had planned. 

Peter needed to change.  He needed to change his understanding of Messiah.  He needed to change his understanding of Jesus.  He needed to change his understanding of how God was working.  He needed to change his understanding of how the world works.  He needed to change his understanding of himself and his role in what was happening. 

We don’t like to change.  It’s not just that we don’t like it, we have all kinds of ways of resisting it, especially when it comes to changing our ideas, our understanding of things, the way we think.

We have all kinds of ways of resisting information we don’t want to hear.  Often we immerse ourselves in echo chambers so we only receive information that is consistent with our way of thinking.  We only watch certain news channels, only read certain papers and periodicals.  Surround ourselves with social media friends who think like us and screen out those who don’t.  Some simply close their minds and refuse to take in any new or different information. 

And then there’s what writer Julian Sanchez calls Epistemic Closure.  He describes it this way:

“An ‘echo chamber’ just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of ‘epistemic closure’ was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.[1]

Peter needed to update his beliefs.  But he resisted.  He pushed back.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It must have cut Peter to the heart when Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.  You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and 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.  

 How often do we try to get Jesus to follow our plans instead of committing ourselves to him and his plans? 

I wonder sometimes if we—and by we I mean a large segment of white American Christianity—I wonder if we haven’t created an epistemic closure version of Christianity.  We call ourselves Christian because we believe certain things about Jesus—that he’s the son of God, that he died for our sins, that by his cross and resurrection he saves us.  And if someone challenges our claim to the Christian label because of the way we treat poor people or hungry people or immigrants, or people of color, or people of differing sexuality, or because of our infatuation with firearms, our because of our less than generous politics, or simply because we’re not really doing much to change the world into something that looks more like the kin-dom of heaven, we  crank up the defense mechanisms of our epistemic closure to shield us from any pointed new information or hard questions.  We point to the creed or our church attendance or our giving to certain things.  We point to particular passages in our Bibles.  We point to our baptism.  We point to our claim that we’re saved.

 We forget sometimes what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus had to shock Peter into the fact that he needed a makeover of the mind, heart and spirit.  He had to call him Satan.  The cosmic opponent.  Lord, that must have hurt.  Going from Rock to Devil in nothing flat.  Jesus had to shock Peter to get him to simply stop believing certain things about him in his head and to get him, instead, to start following him with all his heart.

What would he have to say to you to get through your defenses?  What would he have to say to me?  What would he have to say to turn us from mere believers into followers who carry a cross?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and 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.”

There is so much in life that fragments us.  Not just things that fragment our unity with each other, but things that fragment our individual souls.  We try to wear layers of identities that don’t always fit well with each other.  The patterns clash.  They chip and chafe our psyches if we ever give half a thought to them.  It’s hard to love when you’re trying to hold the pieces of your soul together.  Better to let your self—your selves—fall away into the love of Christ.

That’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.  Deny ourselves—let go of our false selves—put down the beliefs and personas that don’t really fit well with the identity of follower of Christ.  And quit trying to make Jesus wear a costume that fits our ideas of who we might prefer him to be.  

Lay it all down.  Pick up a cross.  And follow.  That’s where we will find our lives, our souls, and be saved.  That’s where we will be made whole.  In Christ’s healing work.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Julian Sanchez@Normative

Optics

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? –Mark 8.18

I’m seeing things a little differently these days. Specifically, I had to get new glasses. It wasn’t something I planned on doing just yet. It hasn’t been even a full year since I got my last glasses and my prescription hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 10 months. Still, two doctors and a therapist strongly suggested that I would be better off looking at the world a different way.

Even though I’ve had progressive lenses for at least two decades it’s not a good idea for me to wear those lenses anymore. Don’t read too much into that metaphorically. Did you know that the eyes and the ears work together to help you maintain balance? The brain is constantly evaluating information from the vestibular (balance) organ in the inner ear against information from the eyes to keep the body balanced. The brain is also processing data from the feet and other parts of the body, too, but the eyes and ears do most of the work and if the vestibular-ocular reflex is out of whack your world starts to spin.

It seems, according to the two doctors and the balance therapist, that the seamless shift in focus that makes progressive lenses so desirable and efficient in so many ways was actually causing me a problem. Because I have Meniere’s Disease, those lineless lenses with their fluid shifts in focal lengths were probably contributing to more frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Their field of focus at all focal lengths isn’t wide enough to give good clarity to peripheral vision and my formerly nimble but now aging neural processor can’t adapt the way it used to with things going in and out of focus. There’s a metaphor you can go to town with.

So I’m seeing things a little differently. I now have to use multiple pairs of glasses—distance and reading bifocals, computer and reading bifocals, distance only. Sunglasses, of course. It takes some getting used to, this business of switching out glasses depending on what I’m doing and where I’m looking, and like anything that takes some getting used to I have moments when it all seems excessively bothersome and I’m sorely tempted to go back to my one-lens-does-it-all spectacles. But even when I’m grousing about it I have to admit that I’ve already noticed an unexpected benefit. I’m actually seeing everything more clearly, at least when I’m wearing the right glasses at the right time. Feel free to play with that metaphor, too.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus in Luke 4 as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind…” Recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was speaking of restoring the actual capacity for sight to those with physical visual impairment, of course, but I think he also was speaking in a broader metaphorical sense. After all, he frequently referred to the eyes and to sight as metaphors for perception and understanding.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” wrote John Heywood in 1546. We all have our blind spots. We all have areas of life where it would do us good to switch out lenses, to make sure we’re getting the whole picture, to make sure we are really seeing what is right in front of us and what is off to the side and what is coming in at an oblique angle–to make sure we’re focused on the right thing at the right time with the right lens. The problem is that we get so comfortable with our old lenses that we might not even notice that they’re distorting our vision of the world; it might not occur to us to take them off and try on something with a clearer view.

One very popular lens that we cling to as we get older is “The Way Things Used To Be” and its even more astigmatic variant “Back When Things Were Great.” The world we see now seems to have gone askew but we think it’s because the world has become twisted and it doesn’t occur to us that it might be the old lens that’s skewing our vision. Sure, things are different, things have changed, but is it really so bad as it looks or are we seeing it through a skewing lens? Ah, that old lens that’s so comfortable, that we’re so used to—that lens that we carefully ground for ourselves out of years halcyon memories. It’s a great lens.…the problem is that it never really was anything like accurate. Sure, Things Were Great “back then,” but only if you were one of the people included in the category of People For Whom Things Are Great. If you broaden your focus to the larger number of People Who Are Not You and then look at People For Whom Things Were Not So Great you’ll get a more realistic picture of how things were and how things are. But you’ll have to change lenses to do that.

There is a whole family of Idealized lenses. Some skew the world toward the positive and some toward the negative but they’re all distorted to some degree. Take, for instance, the “Everything Is Perfect” lens. How anyone manages to navigate the world with this lens is beyond me, but people do. They tend to stumble a lot over things the lens obscures, things which are not perfect but which they just won’t allow themselves to see. There’s the “Everything Will Be Perfect When” lens which, while it gives a more realistic view than its cousin, tends to keep one’s focus narrowed in on a few small things which need to get fixed in order to achieve either personal or collective utopia. For all its claimed farsightedness this lens can be dangerously myopic.

There is, of course, the polar opposite of the Idealized family of lenses, the Cynical family which not only distorts but darkens everything you see, and not in a good Ray Bans-on-a-Sunny-Day kind of way. These lenses make you see the world through a perpetual fog of gloom.

So what lenses are you wearing? How are you seeing the world? Jesus came to restore sight to the blind—to all of us who are blind in any way. Jesus came to change our lenses, to teach us to see the world and each other anew through the lens of God’s love, and then to become opticians of the heart so that we can bring the clarity of God’s love, God’s vision, to others.

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. –Matthew 13.16-17

For God So Loved…

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be destroyed but may have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved through him. –John 3:16-17, translation by Richmond Lattimore

You get used to hearing a thing a certain way and it’s hard to hear it any other way. You get used to seeing things a certain way and it’s hard to see them any other way. It’s not just attitude or stubbornness that does this, it’s at least partly the way our brains work. The human brain, says psychologist James Alcock, is a belief engine. It automatically creates neural pathways to reinforce the patterns, ideas and meanings that we already know and it automatically reacts with wariness to anything that doesn’t quite fit the familiar paradigm.

Take that Bible verse above, for instance. John 3:16 is the most memorized verse in all the Christian scriptures. But I think most of us learned to see it and hear it a certain way when we were small. First, if your experience is like mine, you learned it in Sunday School and you learned it in isolation from what comes before it and after it. You memorized it and treasured it, but it pretty much stood alone in your mind, isolated from the story of Nicodemus, set apart from the very important message that Jesus didn’t come to judge but to save. I was a full grown adult before Pr. Darcy Jensen called my attention to that very important verse 17, and frankly, I was a bit gob smacked! Jesus did not come to judge (or condemn, depending on your translation) but to save!

And to save what? Well, the world, of course. Except not exactly the whole world, because most of us, I think, thought of “the world” as “the people,” the “everyone” the “whosoever” from verse 16. So what we really heard was “God so loved the people that he gave his only son…” And that’s okay as far as it goes except that the word for “world” in the original Greek text is kosmos. As in cosmos. As in all creation. God loves all creation. Jesus came to save all creation!

And there’s that verb to save again. Most of us learned, I think, that this meant Jesus would rescue us from a very painful and nasty afterlife that was the default destination for everyone except his special pals. And yes, to save can mean to rescue. But it can also mean to heal, to make whole, to restore, to preserve.

The point of all this is that sometimes new information does break through the old patterns so that we can see and hear old, familiar things in new ways and our world is enlarged. Sometimes that new information can be life-changing.

In The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett, Masklin, a gnome, tries to come to grips with all the strange ways that new information has been turning their comfortable little gnome world upside down. He does a capable job of leading their community through a nearly catastrophic series of changes, but the power of new information doesn’t really hit home with him until his girlfriend, Grimma, discovers an encyclopedia. New information changes her world, and by extension, his. He laments to a friend,

“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs. She said there’s these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rainforests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these like great big flowers called…bromeliads, I think, and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground, and once you know the world is full of things like that, your life is never the same.”

Once you know, your life is never the same. “Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.” says Masklin in a later chapter. You can’t help it. And maybe that’s another reason we resist new information because once we see something in a new and different way, we can’t unsee it. But the transformative power of our faith lies, at least in part, in our ability to see the world and each other with fresh eyes. We are to continually be transformed by the renewing our minds.

For centuries our theology has, for the most part, been anthropocentric, centered on humanity. On us. But we don’t have to change too much in the way we read or hear our sacred texts to develop a theology of ecology. For God so loved the cosmos… This is how much God loved all of creation…

God, in Christ, is certainly calling us to do whatever we can to rescue the people of this world from the various and sundry miseries that can make life a living hell. But if we read it just a little differently, with new information, we might see that we, in Christ, are really being called to an even bigger job, to the healing and restoration of the whole world. All of it… including those tiny frogs who live in their tiny pools in the bromeliads in the tops of the Amazon trees.