A meditation on Mark 8:22-33...offered in worship on 2/12/12.
Surely by now, at least once, you’ve heard me invoke novelist Flannery O’Connor and her rather disarming summation of Jesus’ message. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” she wrote in her journal. “But first, but first, it will make you flinch.” Sometimes we get all mushy and sweet with the gospel as if all it is is bon bons and dessert. I’m as guilty of this as any preacher out there. But Flannery O’Connor grasped something else in Jesus’ message, something hard, even something troublesome. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free; but first it will make you flinch.” Try that out on your friends. Come to my church this Sunday. Yeah, we’ll be flinching together!
The story we read this morning strikes me as a story about flinching. Peter thinks he’s got Jesus all figured out. You are the Christ, he says proudly, the Messiah. I’ve been paying attention. I’ve seen you healing people. I’ve seen you feeding thousands at a time. I’ve seen things. You are the Christ, and I’m with you.
And before we come down hard on Peter, before we use him as this Sunday’s ‘straw man,’ he’s pretty much on target, right? Peter’s left his old ways, his old neighborhood, and followed Jesus on a wild ride of healing and feeding, teaching and preaching. The poor hear good news. The blind can see. The hungry are fed. Surely, this is the Christ; Jesus is the Son of God. Something radically new is breaking in on the tired, old world. Can’t blame Peter for dancing on his wedding day. As it were.
But here comes the flinching part. You know it’s coming. Jesus says to Peter, and honestly to us as well, Don’t get too comfortable. You may think you know me, you may think you’ve figured me out. But it’s not that easy. It’s not so simple. This bit about discipleship has something to do with dying, something to do with a cross, something to do with surrender!
Well, Peter pretty much loses him at the dying part. Flinches at the dying part. Are you kidding? You have to die? I have to die? You’ve gotta be kidding! Because I’ve been paying attention. I’ve seen you healing people. I’ve seen you feeding thousands. You can do anything you want. You can be anything you want. And you’re talking about giving it all up? Suffering? You’re talking about a cross?
You see what I mean about flinching? And Jesus says, Yes, I’m talking about a cross.
If you read just one book about spirituality this year, you might want to make it “The Promise of Paradox” by Quaker theologian Parker Palmer. He just has a way with words, an honest way, that gets at the heart and, yes, the paradox of Christianity. “The Promise of Paradox.”
In one of the book’s best essays, Parker Palmer explores his own journey through the Stations of the Cross. Not the traditional stations, the fourteen you find rimming the edges of a Catholic sanctuary; but the spiritual stations, five of them, that describe his own Christian journey. The evolution and rhythm of it. RECOGNITION, RESISTANCE, ACCEPTANCE, AFFIRMATION and LIBERATION. Five stations of the cross. It’s not a sequential path, he says, so much as a map of the spiritual landscape. RECOGNITION, RESISTANCE, ACCEPTANCE, AFFIRMATION and LIBERATION. Five stations.
Basically, says Parker Palmer, every one of us RESISTS the cross on our way to the cross. We have to. We have to push back against the odd demands of the gospel, against Jesus and his surrender. RESISTANCE is part of our journey, an inevitable station on the way. Some of us come back, again and again and again. There’s just no getting to AFFIRMATION and LIBERATION without passing through RESISTANCE. Peter’s not the only one; it’s true for every one of us. The artist who hits the wall, tires of the creative process and flips the canvass over in frustration and despair. The mother awakened at 3 am by a shrieking infant needing to be nursed and then rolling over, nothing left to give. The peacemaker utterly demoralized by another famine, another massacre, another war. If we’re honest and if we’re human, we meet RESISTANCE like an irritable old friend, over and again on our spiritual journeys. Peter’s not the only one.
Bumping along through stop-and-go traffic this week, I picked up an interview on one of my favorite shows, NPR’s “Fresh Air.” It seems that this writer from The New Yorker spent three years living in the slums of Mumbai, in India, and returned to write a book about the millions who live there. Kind of a devastating interview. She talked about families whose entire existence involves collecting garbage around the Mumbai airport. She described thousands and thousands of children living in cardboard boxes, under tin roofs, in abject poverty. And a world that seems satisfied with misery as a consequence of economic growth. The global economy and all that.
I have to admit that there are times in my life, there are afternoons on the freeway, when I flinch. Just like Peter. Times when nothing makes any sense. Times when God seems either disinterested and callous or a colossal waste of time. I’m not sure I want give my life to a God who lets this stuff happen. A meek, ineffective God—who asks us only to suffer and struggle together. There are times I’m not sure I believe slow, steady compassion really changes anything in the end. And I’m not sure I can go ‘all in’ anymore—with a God who spins the galaxies in motion, but sits around while poor kids with a dozen diseases collect garbage in Mumbai.
Am I the only one who has afternoons like that? When commitment hits the proverbial wall. When compassion fatigue seems like a terminal disease. When Jesus himself makes no sense. Am I the only one? I don’t think so. RESISTANCE comes with the territory. RESISTANCE comes with faith. No, Peter’s not the only one. Not by a long shot.
And Parker Palmer says, in his essay, RESISTANCE? Great! Engage it. Live with it! Let it work on you! Rather than tripping out on RESISTANCE or feeling insanely guilty about it, he says, Go with it! Spiritual life feeds on RESISTANCE. RESISTANCE is part of who we are, how we’re wired. Every one of us RESISTS the cross on the way to the cross. In a sense, until you RESIST Jesus, until you RESIST what he’s about, you can’t grapple with the cost and the commitment of Christian life. Or live into the possibilities of grace.
Parker Palmer cuts right to the chase. He’s a marvelous writer. He says, “Resist any cross that comes your way.” Isn’t that wild? “Resist any cross that comes your way.” Then he says, “Boldly become a pole of opposition; live the contradiction.” And it gets better. He says, “The false crosses will fall away, while those we must accept will stay there in the middle of our lives, pulling right and left, up and down, until they pull us open to our true center, a center where we are one with God, a center which we find only on the way of the cross.”
I think that’s what Jesus wants for Peter, and for you and me. Resistance and integrity. He wants the false crosses to fall away, while the important ones pull us right and left, up and down. Until they pull us open to our true center. This pilgrimage is not a test we cram for, parroting back the right answers, earning ourselves a ticket to salvation. This is a vision quest, a vision quest, and along the way we lose as much as we win, we break as much as we heal. But in the arms of grace, we come to see who we really are. And what life’s really all about. Compassion. What life’s about, what the gospel’s about, what Jesus is about—is compassion.
You’ll remember that the reading this morning begins with another healing story—the only one, by the way, in which Jesus has to go back and try a second time. I’m inclined to think of this as more than coincidence. I’m inclined to read the healing story as a kind of foreshadowing, a metaphor really for the discipleship lesson that follows. The exchange between Peter and Jesus.
Remember how that first part goes? First Jesus puts spit in the man’s eyes and lays his hand on him. “Do you see anything?” he asks. And the man looks up from the ground, wiping saliva from his eyes. “I see something,” he says, “something like men, something like trees walking.”
So yes and no. He sees a little. Something new happening. Something new coming his way. But it’s still not clear what. It’s still not clear where he goes from here. Who he becomes. What will be asked of him. So Jesus lays hands on his eyes a second time. And the man ‘looks hard,’ and realizes that now he sees perfectly. Everything in bright color and true focus. Maybe this isn’t just another miracle—but a story about wisdom and faith. Faith is a journey. Wisdom is process. Faith is a vision quest. And seeing takes a lifetime.
So maybe what goes on for Peter is this: he follows Jesus around, watches the healings, maybe participates a little, feeding the thousands, taking all kinds of risks and believing now in a better future. In a sense, through the first half of the gospel, Peter learns to see a little. To understand some things about Jesus. He comes to appreciate some of what Jesus brings to the table, and he certainly works up an appetite for more.
But faith is never a done deal, belief is never a fixed accomplishment. God insists on heart and soul, resistance and struggle, integrity and compassion. And here’s one of the real lessons I take from today’s story: As soon as I think I know what Jesus is all about, I probably don’t. As soon as I get comfortable with Jesus, I’ve got to expect the unexpected. Grace is like that. The gospel is like that. Always broader than my imagination. Always breaking free of my comfort zone. So as soon as I think I know what Jesus is all about, I probably don’t. Faith is a journey, a process, a vision quest. And seeing takes a lifetime.
One of the best books I read last month was this one, a novel by Colum McCann. It’s called “Let the Great World Spin.” It’s a story about New York, really, New York City in 1974. It’s got all kinds of characters. A judge who’s grown cynical about his work in the system. A couple of hookers in the Bronx and a Catholic priest who watches out for them. Two painters who’ve lost their passion. And a grieving gathering of mothers, every one of whom has lost a son in the Vietnam War. Vietnam casts a shadow over the whole book, and Watergate, and New York on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1974.
In the end, it’s a book about hope and love, and the ways a single artist shines some light in all that darkness.
But, in a lot of ways, it’s a novel about fear, and all the ways fear clogs the arteries of a city, and its people. At one point, the young priest says to a friend: “It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. You covered in it...Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues." All this fear. And it’s just as true for the judge on Wall Street as it is for the hookers in the Bronx, just as true for the painter as it is for the priest. It’s like dust. Covering everything.
And maybe, maybe that’s why Jesus is so put off by Peter’s enthusiasm, by his bravado, by his certainty. Even though, in so many ways, Peter gets it right. Jesus knows there’s fear like dust out there. Covering everything. That’s the spiritual crisis. Fear’s clogging the arteries of cities and nations, churches, synagogues and neighborhoods. It’s breaking the hearts of hookers and lawyers alike. And Peter’s bravado, Peter’s theological bravado does little to clear the air. Bravado never does.
Instead, Jesus asks Peter, Jesus asks us to come a little closer. To look a little deeper. Jesus asks us to weep with the dying. And laugh with the children. To confront injustice without any guarantees. And feed the hungry without a whole lot of resources. Jesus asks us to give up his image of a distant God who’s got everything under control and to cast our lot with a vulnerable God. Who bleeds sometimes. And breaks a lot. Jesus asks Peter to cast his lot with a God of Love. No guarantees.
And Peter resists. God bless him, Peter resists. Maybe that’s true of us too. We like a God who’s got things in hand. We like a God who knows how to fix things in the end. But Jesus, Jesus says, I believe that love is stronger than fear. Let’s find out. He’s says, I believe we can heal this planet. I believe in the power of redemptive suffering. Let’s find out. Set aside the distant, everything-under-control god. Cast your lot with the God of Love.
And that’s the invitation before us. To take up the cross with Jesus. To be pulled open, pried open to our true center. And to trust, to hope, to believe in the love that lives there.