Year B, Proper 19--Letting God Be God & Being Made Beautiful
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year B, Proper 19: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Time and again in Holy Scripture, we see God overturning our fixed and settled ideas about how things should be, in favor of how they actually are. When the Jews around Jesus hear him talking about the Kingdom of God in parables, they expect him to use the Cedars of Lebanon—massive, majestic 1,000 year-old trees—as appropriate symbols of Israel’s future glory. Instead, he talks about mustard seeds. Weeds. He talks about leaven in the bread and uses images of corruption and spoiling to point to how pure and holy God works in the world. And when the disciples try to hush the children up and keep them from coming to Jesus (he’s a busy man after all not a daycare worker), Jesus tells the disciples that unless they become like little children, they cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s not that our God is a kind of divine trickster or Coyote-like figure who just likes to mess with us to create chaos for the sake of chaos. God’s surprises, the shattering of our vision of how he should show up and behave (wash your hands, don’t heal on the sabbath, don’t consort with sinners, tax collectors or women with issues of blood) serves a far more generous, loving, and gracious purpose: to free us of our illusions that we might see God as God is, let God be God instead of creating him according to our (often unconscious) conditioning inherited from parents, teachers, church, and nation. God wants to remove everything that gets in the way of us knowing ourselves to be loved unconditionally.
God’s surprises aren’t the cruel interventions of a cat toying with a mouse before gobbling it up for lunch. God’s surprises are always in the service of disabusing us of the constraints and conceptual boxes we place on God’s presence and action in the mistaken effort to enjoy a measure of control, order, and predictability. It’s losing our illusion of control, and placing that strategy of maintaining our identity under the sign of the cross, that we find the safety, peace, and security for which we long. Losing our so-called life we find not emptiness and absence, but God living God’s life in us. Giving up the pursuit of happiness on our own terms—power, prestige, possessions—we find it already given, freely gifted to us by grace, unmerited and undeserved. God wants to share his life with us and sometimes needs to rattle our cages to get our attention.
To be a Christian, then, consists in a certain sense of allowing ourselves to be surprised, of welcoming astonishment, and holding our ideas about how things should be lightly. Of course, we can have our preferences, but if these preferences harden into requirements and demands, we are well down the road to unnecessary suffering. We spend our life fixated on our idea of God should be working in our lives and miss all his hidden handiwork at the heart of each moment. And inevitably, our ideas about how things should be bump up against the hard rock of life as it really is with all its attendant ups and downs. The question is whether we can let these shoulds, these demands, these requirements fall apart, or whether we hold stubbornly to them. The one way leads to abundant life, flourishing, and Gospel freedom. The other to a fearful, contracted, hell of our own making where we invest all of our precious energy in trying to control the uncontrollable.
In our Gospel for today, we see another such instance of God overturning Peter’s deeply held beliefs about what it means for Jesus to the “Messiah.” In the Jewish imagination of the time, Messiahship brought with it a whole host of assumptions mostly centered around political liberation from yoke of the Imperial Rome empire, and carrying one’s closest associates with you to glory and reward. We sometimes refer to this as the “Confession of Peter,” but we might ask ourselves whether Peter’s picture of Jesus as Messiah accords with the reality of what Jesus is to face, or whether Peter is simply seeing what he wants to see in Jesus, what he thinks will bring him the happiness for which he longs so deeply. Jesus wants to test Peter precisely on this point, and so he begins to launch into one of his “passion predictions” about how, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Peter, of course, is horrified. This doesn’t fit with his idea of what following Jesus is all about. Peter even goes so far as to pull Jesus aside and give him a piece of his mind, “Boss, this is not in the script! This whole suffering servant campaign strategy is not going to win friends and influence people!” Peter’s image of messiahship doesn’t include arrest, rejection, humiliation, scorn, and death on the cross. Peter’s image of messiahship is in some ways a picture of the spiritual life as a magic carpet ride to bliss, or what Luther calls, “the Theology of Glory.” The trouble, of course, with this picture of messiahship and the spiritual life is that it leaves out most of our lived human experience. The experience of old age, sickness, and death. The experience of losing a job. The loss of a loved one. Struggles with mental illness. Intractable squabbles among siblings over the appropriate care of an ailing parent. Like Peter, we don’t want any of these things either. We try to rebuke them. But alas, they arrive at our doorstep unbidden don’t they?
Jesus’ point in rebuking Peter, of exorcising him, is to show him that his picture of God is too small. Peter’s messiah, for all his political prowess, is still an all-too-human creation of his own mind and expectations. The spiritual life, in Peter’s version of it, is something akin to an afternoon at the spa. For Peter, we only experience God, we see the messiah, when things are humming along nicely and everything is going according to plan. The trouble with that picture is that it leaves out the vast majority of our experience. We create a God of our better moments and then rail at God’s supposed absence when we walk of the spa to find someone’s dinged up our car in the parking lot.
All the subversions of our expectation in scripture are directed at freeing us from this limited and limiting picture of God. The great gift of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming sin, alienation, and death for us, is that all aspects of our life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are reconciled to God. There is no experience, no part of our life, that is not seen, and held, in the tender, loving palm of God who wants only to love us into loving. There is nothing in our human experience that Jesus has not taken to himself and redeemed in love—the sense of God’s absence, the sense of alienation from God, even the feeling of rejection by God. To confess Jesus as Lord, to truly call him the Messiah, is to know by faith, that even at our most desolate and despairing God is loving us, that hidden within what afflicts us is the truth of the resurrection which will shine forth in its own good time.
Jesus is calling Peter, and each of us, to open ourselves, to surrender ourselves to what we can’t predict, manage, or control. To place our trust in the loving faithfulness of God. It is in becoming little, powerless, surrendered entirely to God’s will for us that we start to see his mysterious action always and everywhere—in the weeds, the leaven, and the little ones. Not just at Club Med with a pinacolato in one hand and a Danielle Steele novel in the other, but even, perhaps especially, when things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and we don’t know which end is up.
When Jesus tells us to take up our cross and to lose our life for his sake, he’s in one sense calling us to let go of our inhibiting pictures and images of who and how God works and to open to God just as God is in the faith and hope that all things work together for the good. We can never have to much confidence in Him. Jesus has taken all things to Himself and that God’s loving care pervades all aspects of our life. When we drop the struggle to maintain our idea of how things should be, when we leave our preconceptions, biases, cultural conditioning, and false value systems at the foot of the cross, we discover that the power at work within us—the power of the Risen Christ—is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
Back in 1966, Leonard Cohen wrote a nearly incomprehensible novel called Beautiful Losers. I won’t bore you with the plot (I couldn’t summarize it for you if I wanted to), but the title is wonderful pointer to our Gospel lesson for today. Beautiful Losers. We are called to be beautiful losers. Our winning ways are foolishness in God’s eyes. Losing our illusions, our demands, our requirements, our shoulds, is what creates a little space where God can work within and among us. It’s in losing, opening, surrendering that we are made beautiful like Christ, the Beautiful One, is beautiful. Not that plastic, Cosmopolitan or Vogue kind of beautiful, but nitty-gritty, real-life beauty. Mustard seed beauty. Leaven beauty. Mastectomy scar beauty. C-section beauty. Knee-replacement beauty. The beauty of the Pierced One on the cross shining forth love and resurrection hope from a twisted tree atop a garbage heap outside the city walls with nothing outside the reach of His saving embrace.