A wise old preacher said to a young one, just beginning his ministry, “Take both praise and criticism with a grain of salt.” Wise words that have come back to me many times. You’re probably not as great as somebody would lead you to believe, and you’re probably not as bad as somebody else–or maybe the same somebody–would have you believe. “Take both praise and criticism with a grain of salt.”
So I think about Peter in last week’s and today’s readings from Matthew. Remember last week when Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And when Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus praised him saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Wow! Kind of hard to remember salt at a time like that!
So, imagine the bitter, salty taste in his mouth, when Jesus began to explain to them just what it meant that he was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes , and be killed,…” Imagine Peter’s heart breaking at each one of those phrases–”suffer many things, and be killed…” I imagine that his blood was pounding so loudly in his ears that he probably didn’t even listen all the way to the end, when Jesus said, “and on the third day be raised.”
Peter thought that what had been revealed to him, not by flesh and blood but by Jesus’ own Father was that Jesus was going to save them and all of Israel, that being the Christ, the Messiah was a good thing, not something you suffer for, that the God whom Jesus was the Son of was powerful and just and righteous.
So Peter took Jesus aside and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance, a stumbling block to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” More than a grain of salt stung Peter’s eyes with tears and humiliation. “Satan!” he had called him. The Tempter. Now, apparently, the voice in his head was Satan’s, not God’s.
“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus went on, “let them deny themselves [‘they must
leave self behind,’as another translation puts it] and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save their life [or cares for their own safety] will lose it, or [is lost]; and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. [or, lets themselves be lost for my sake, they will find their true self]. For what will it profit a person , if they gain the whole world and forfeit their life? [What will a person gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of their true self?’] Or what shall a person give in return for their life [ or their true self]?”
Boy, these are tough words to contemplate in the middle of the final long weekend of summer! (Or anytime, for that matter.) The closest thing to salt we want to taste is a bag full of chips and a cold drink.
But here it is, the crux of the gospel in the middle of a fading summer weekend. No wonder people aren’t standing in the aisles and forming lines out to the street. “Sign up here to suffer!” we might as well advertize. “Lessons in dying here.” “We’ll break your heart.”
A clergy friend of mine posted an image on Facebook this week of a semitic looking
man–broad nose, piercing dark eyes, dark hair sticking up–and over the face were these words:
“Things Jesus Wasn’t” and then scattered across the page, the words–”White, American, Indifferent, Christian, Middle-class, Blonde, Homeowner, Nice, Tame, Overly Pious, Legal Citizen, Humorless, Polite, Exclusive, Violent, Obsessed with Sex, English-speaker, Mild”–Things Jesus wasn’t.
When Peter told Jesus that bad things must never happen to him, the salt that he was had already lost its flavor. His inspired imagination about God had already been domesticated, just like ours is most of the time, especially if we listen to our culture. God is all-powerful, God never lets bad things happen to really good people, God will rescue us from the mess we’ve made, God will punish the bad people and reward the good. Really? That’s all you’ve got? Nothing more than a relatively competent military dictator? The “I am who I am”/ “I will be who I will be” who spoke from the burning bush is way beyond that.
“The coopted imagination,” one commentator observed, ” assumes that there is a way to gain life other than by losing it.’ (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 469)
“Whoever cares for their own safety is lost; but if you let yourself be lost for my sake, you will find your true self. What will you gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of your true self? Or what can you give that will buy that self back?” The self that you need to lose is your small s self, the one that stops at your own boundaries, that refers only back to yourself, that’s all about you. But what you gain when you lose this small s self is your true Self, capital S, the beloved, precious Self that lives and moves and has its being in the Great Self, in God. That is a life worth living for. And dying for.
A nurse who works in palliative care, with people who are nearing the end of their lives, compiled a list of the top 5 regrets that dying people expressed. The number one regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” “Whoever would follow me must leave the “little” self behind, must take up their cross and follow me.” Notice Jesus didn’t say, “Must take up my cross” or “your neighbor’s cross.” Make sure the cross you’re picking up is yours to carry, not one that someone else says you should bear. As Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton said, “Bear your share.” “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” If you lose your self in me, you’ll find your true Self.
By the way, the other top 4 regrets of the dying? “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” Every male patient said this, thinking of all the moments in their children’s and loved ones’ lives they’d missed. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings,” instead of always trying to keep the peace and settling for a mediocre life. “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” and finally, “I wish I had let myself be happier.” “This was surprisingly common,” the nurse wrote. So many didn’t realize that happiness is a choice, and instead stayed stuck in familiarity, old habits. (Huff Post, 8/3/13) No need to wait until you’re dying to make adjustments. Regrets belong to the past, not to the present.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to Peter. The rock that you are has become a stumbling block for me. It couldn’t be more blunt. But one translator says that the Greek word for “get behind” is the same as the word used a little earlier when Jesus was talking about “binding things” in heaven and on earth. Perhaps Jesus is telling Peter to “bind himself” to Jesus. [Mark Davis, Left Behind…, 8/31/14) “Stick with me,” in other words. “Yes, it’s going to get nasty.” The Messiah, the Christ, the Fully One must suffer at the hands of the powers that be because the majority of human beings suffer at the hands of the Powers That Be. Yes, your heart will break, your knees will get weak, you’ll be blind with fear, but I’ve got your back. You will never be alone. That’s what the cross is about. There is nothing you can go through, no place you can go, that I haven’t gone and that I won’t be with you. Get behind me. I’ll go ahead of you. Bind yourself to me. When you make the sign of the cross on yourself, you’re taking it into you, not on you. I always thought that was “a Catholic thing,” but really, what a good reminder!
Peter’s heart broke not only when he was rebuked by Jesus but when he heard what following Jesus really meant. It wasn’t what Peter wanted it to be. And honestly, it’s probably not what we want it to be…comfortable, exciting, respectable, easy. But, as David Lose notes, “Even though our hearts may break when we discover we’re not getting the God we want, we will come alive again as we realize we’re getting the God we need.” (Lose, inthemeantime, 8/31/14) …the God we need when we’ve wandered too far away from what we know is right, from our true Selves, the God we need when it feels like we’re being crucified, the God we need when the diagnosis or the pink slip or the eviction or that phone call comes, the God who will stick with us through thick and thin, on a summer Sunday or a bleak Tuesday afternoon in winter.
“If you let your self get lost for my sake, you’ll find your true Self.” “Jesus didn’t come here to die,” a wise man said, “but to love.” (Peter Woods, I am listening, 8/31/14) Dying isn’t really an option–we all will–but loving is a choice, the choice that makes life worth living. So let us choose love–and life. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark