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

A Channel of Peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.The Prayer of St. Francis

We are crossing the equinox once again. This is the time of year when we get busy again. The schedule shifts back into high gear. Meetings and classes resume. Choirs starts up again. Certain dates loom large on the calendar. Reformation. Advent. Christmas. Election Day. We begin to cram more things into less time and, while there’s a certain kind of comfort in all the momentum, there’s also the increased anxiety that comes from a fuller calendar. “Anxiety is the garden in which sin grows,” said St. Augustine, and it’s easy to see why. This year, especially, with all the violence that has filled the news and with an acrimonious election cycle building to a climax, anxiety seems to be washing over our world, our nation, and our communities in waves. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” says Jesus (Luke 12:32). I don’t know about you, but I find myself praying more fervently than ever, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

 Much as I would like for God to hurry up and simply give us the kingdom, it seems to me as I look at the long sweeps of human history that God has been giving us the kingdom all along, making God’s divine rule a reality on earth as it is in heaven in a very slow but inexorable process. Oh…so…slow, this process—more than two thousand years in the making so far. And it’s been precarious every step of the way. That’s because God, in God’s wisdom, knows that the systems by which we operate—the systems that tend to create winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, the systems that encourage us to see life as competition rather than collaboration—the systems of the world won’t be transformed into something that benefits everyone until the people of the world are transformed. God knows that if the divine values of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were simply imposed on us they would be brittle and false; they would crumble and leave cynical bitterness behind. But when this fruit of the Spirit grows in each of us organically and naturally, when we cultivate it in our internal life it gives us a resilience and strength that enables us to meet the nastier currents of our time with deep-rooted grace. When antagonism, depression, conflict, impatience, meanness, stinginess, faithlessness, violence, and self-indulgence are abroad in the land we, as followers of Jesus, must stand against them, but we must draw from the deep wells of grace, love and truth in doing so. When the voices of misogyny, bigotry, racism, separatism, and scapegoating are loud and strident in the land, we who are disciples of Jesus must, as gently as possible but as firmly as necessary say No. That is not the way forward. That is not who we are called to be. That way lies dystopia—that road leads to hell, not heaven. “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 Christ tells us that we are the light of the world and that idea is affirmed throughout the Scriptures. “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) The work we do together, the thinking we do together, the lives we live together are God’s antidote to forces that would divide us and set us at each other’s throats. As we cross this Autumnal Equinox, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it’s easy to feel sometimes as if the darkness is winning. But we are children of light; we have the light within us and as the nights grow colder the light and love of Christ can keep our hearts warm if we remain conscientious and faithful in gathering together.

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) We gather together in all kinds of congregations.  We gather together in our places of worship.  We gather together, often spontaneously, in like-minded communities in social media.  We gather together in community events.  The important thing for us to remember as we gather, though, is that “provoking” each other to love and good deeds should be the highest priority.  It’s so easy to simply form echo chambers for our biases and pre-conceived ideas, but if that’s all we’re doing it would probably be better if we didn’t see each other so much, online or elsewhere. There is already more than enough acrimony, bigotry, and mutually reinforced deafness bouncing off the walls of the world without us adding to it.

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)  I’m thinking of getting that tattooed on my right forearm where I’ll see it all the time.  My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  On the contrary, when I release it into the blogosphere or let it bounce down the labyrinths of social media it simply adds to the strident blare that deafens us to each other.  The light of compassion, grace and honesty can illuminate and bring clarity to the dark corners of our collective psyche, but the glare of anger and opposition simply blinds us to each other.

I’m writing all this to myself  more than to anyone else.  I’ve needed to give myself a good talking-to for a while now.  This political season has not always brought out the best in me.  I have a tendency to do some of my most exquisitely pointed and logical writing when I’m good and pissed off.  Anger is my pony and I tend to ride that baby till it drops. I need to remind myself that “if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, if I have faith to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  There’s a time for anger.  It is sometimes a useful and necessary tool.  Sometimes.  But it’s not a safe place to live, and I, for one, have been spending far too much time in Angryland.  When your eyes adjust to the glare you begin to realize that it’s really a very dark place

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Now is the time. Let your light shine.  Make me a channel of your peace.

(Written 9/16/2016, revised 10/5/16)