Sunday, March 01, 2015

That Not-So-Sweet Jesus

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California on March 1st, 2015

Where did we decide that Jesus was sweet, kind, and gentle, and why? Maybe it has something to do with attempting to make the gospel stories (and the Bible generally) palatable for protected, young ears and tender imaginations. Maybe it has something to do with our habitual domestication and institutionalization of religion. That makes some sense – we institutionalize people deemed unruly, so why not scripture and Jesus, too?

It is easy to imagine and depict Jesus, blue-eyed and blond-haired no less, surrounded by laughing children, smiling platonically and knowingly that all will be well. Except that is our conceit, not scripture’s. Nor is it Jesus’.

Jesus was a frustrated man. And he was Semitic, not Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon, which meant he grew up in a culture where passions were at the surface of everyday life and relationships. And he was Mediterranean, which meant there was yelling in public and it mattered how you play verbal hardball, most of all with your opponents.

Perhaps most importantly for our gospel today, Jesus’ understanding of hatred was indifference, not wanton cruelty. And that meant his understanding of love meant engagement, reproof, and disclosure of the heart. And the heart for him was not a demurring, individualistic secretive seat of emotion, but an openly relational, communal dynamic of passion, thought, and conviction wrapped and delivered in action. For Jesus, there was no love at a distance. There was only love up close, personal, and, indeed, political.

So Peter gets an earful today, not for being evil, but for being errant and dense. And you can’t blame Peter. He’s feeling bold. He just got it right for a change, identifying Jesus first as the Messiah. And he knows what “Messiah” means. It means a political savior who will throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory under David’s son. Maybe Peter is imagining a few divine things, too, but his Messiah is grounded in reality and is supposed to bring about some practical political change and honor to all of Judea, Galilee, and the people of God everywhere. And Peter has just witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes, putting the religious authorities in their place and healing the blind. So what is Jesus talking about? All this nonsense about going to Jerusalem and being arrested and killed. Peter likely can’t hear much past that. Who needs a dead King? Or a dead Messiah for that matter? So, of course, he will rebuke his Rabbi, Master, and friend.

And Jesus’ counter-rebuke will be all the more stinging, but not because he calls Peter a “Satan,” which simply means “tempter.” But because Peter has just stumbled into yet another, even more disturbing truth:

The Messiah he thought he signed up for is not the Messiah he is getting.

We all know this feeling. The perfect house turned out to be mold-ridden or needs a major foundation repair. The perfect church just turned out to have everything all communities have: bad history, gossips, and skeletons lurking in dark places. The perfect job is tarnished by a grumpy boss, an incompetent co-worker, or the unexpected drudgery of paperwork. The perfect friend just stabbed us in the back. The spouse we thought we married has edges we didn’t know about and didn’t learn about until the wedding was over, the honeymoon was behind us, the bills were all piled up, and all of life with its bumps and windy roads lay ahead.

Love, we all learn again today along with Peter, is a choice. It isn’t the romantic confluence of perfect circumstances and emotions. Faith, we learn with him, is also a choice. It isn’t just a nice daisy chain of inspired moments.

And pain, we all try to learn along with Peter, is an inevitable part of love and faith. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

And life, particularly Life with a capital “L” — that Life with God, the author of creation and all true love — happens only one way: cheek-by-jowl with death.

The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about has, at least at first glance, surprisingly little to do with the stories about King David’s slaying Goliath with a sling and stone, or the glorious expansion of his mature kingdom. The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about is so fragile that it must die before it can live. And it is not made of stone walls and fortresses, but dry-rotted wood shaped into crosses. And it is not found at the heart of Jerusalem in the beauty of the Solomonic Temple, but outside the city on a bare hill where the criminals go to die.

Jesus tells his disciples and us — if we will but set aside our kindly, gentle, but largely harmless depiction of our Savior — that we must face our darkness in order to find light. We must see our imperfections if we are to be perfected by God’s love for us. We must confront death’s designs if we are to embrace life. And the Kingdom of God, that frustrated kingdom that still yearns to be born even now in the real lives of the suffering and the lonely, the fearful and the marginalized, is born on the sweaty, hard work of carrying crosses, both ours and those of others.

Richard Rohr talks about “necessary suffering,” the inevitable hard knocks of life that every human being experiences simply by breathing and being in relationship. There is suffering delivered by oppression, by evil, by negligence, and we can police that to a degree. But necessary suffering is as inevitable as old age. Peter, like us, would avoid that if he could.

But the command of Jesus to Peter and to us is to get behind him. The command is to get real. The command is to join the struggle and dispense with the selfish delusions of immortal youth, political glory, and the superficial salves of creature comforts. These are the temptations Jesus confronted in the wilderness. No wonder Peter’s oblique appeal to them equates him in Jesus’ mind with Satan.

No, God’s Kingdom is more radical than Peter imagines, more fragile than he wants to know, and yet — like that sacred covenant God made with Abraham — more consequential for the ages and peoples near and far than he can begin to realize. Yet it is remarkable that Peter, stung as he is, doesn’t leave Jesus at this juncture.

Maybe he recognizes a glimmer of hope in Jesus’ words, or at least a glimpse of deeper truth than he has yet to understand. The difficult, frustrating, winding road ahead is one of love, truth, compassion, and true justice: those divine gifts the world cannot commodify or control, and so it often ignores or marginalizes them. And sometimes it kills them. As it killed the prophets of old and as it kills the prophets of today.

Lent is about walking with Peter and following that road anyway. . . and trusting in a God who has whispered or perhaps just hinted in Peter’s heart and ours, too, that the path ahead could conquer even death itself.