Proper 19B: Mark 8:27-38 and James 3:1-12
I’ve recently begun wondering if one of the primary things that unites us as country today might not be disillusionment. It seems to be everywhere, and on all sides. Now we may not agree on what we are disillusioned about but I think it’s a common disease from which we are all suffering. There is disillusionment with our leaders and the political system, with economic opportunities, with endless wars and violence, with prejudice and oppression, with religion and the church.
I suspect disillusionment is, in large part, what helped get President Trump elected and is what keeps his followers loyal. I suspect it is also what energizes those who disagree with and oppose our president. Behind the vitriol of recent political ads lies disillusionment. It’s what drives the Me Too Movement. It’s why we are heartbroken and angry over the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I read disillusionment in Facebook posts. I hear it in conversations and accusations. I recognize it in the decline of church attendance and influence.
And every one of us could tell a story about our personal disillusion, the disillusion that is unique and particular to our life and life’s circumstances. Haven’t you had times of disillusionment, times when you recognized that your life or the world wasn’t what you thought it was, and may never be?
Disillusion happens when the story we’ve told ourselves, the story on which we based our lives and beliefs, the story to which we committed ourselves, no longer makes sense, is no longer relevant, no longer works, or is no longer true. Disillusionment is an in between time, a time when we have lost faith in the old familiar story but have not yet embraced another story. It leaves us panicked and fearful about the future. The world feels like a dangerous and chaotic place, out of control. And somebody needs to do something.
Does any of that sound familiar? Do you understand what I am talking about? What is your disillusionment today?
Disillusionment, however, isn’t only about what’s going on around us. It begins within us. It’s a spiritual issue. And it’s one Peter knows well. In today’s gospel (Mark 8:27-38) he is the picture of disillusionment.
He’s confessed Jesus as the Messiah. He has a particular story about who the Messiah is and what the Messiah should do and be about. Who doesn’t? Jesus, however is about to undo and rewrite Peter’s story. “The Son of Man,” he says, “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.” So much for Peter’s understanding of the Messiah.
That’s neither what he expected nor what he wanted. So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, as if he knows more and better than Jesus. In Matthew’s version of this story we hear what Peter says to Jesus. “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt. 16:22).
Can you see and hear Peter’s disillusionment? Peter confesses and Peter rebukes, all with the same tongue in the same conversation. He’s speaking with a forked tongue, or as a friend of mine says, out of both sides of his mouth. It’s what James is describing in today’s epistle (James 3:1-12).
Listen to the disillusionment in your own life or in the life of another and you’ll likely hear blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth. “With” the tongue, James says, “we bless the Lord and Father, and we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
The forked tongue is a symptom of division within ourselves. The division we see out there is a projection of the division within us. It reveals our panicked disillusionment. And it reveals our arrogance. More often than not panicked disillusionment comes with the arrogance that we know exactly where things are headed and what should be done. Peter’s confession and rebuke have become his disillusionment and arrogance.
“My brothers and sisters,” James continues, “this ought not to be so.” We know that, right? James states the obvious, “This ought not to be so.” Our disillusionment is not an excuse to curse or rebuke another. It’s not a basis for claiming we know more and better than another. And it is not a reason to declare or treat the other as less than us when that other has been created and loved by the same God who created and loves us.
The arrogance of panicked disillusionment can quickly lead to self-assertion. We can see that in Peter and his rebuke of Jesus. I’m not saying that as a criticism or judgment of Peter but in recognition of and identification with times of my own disillusion, arrogance, and self-assertion.
Jesus has no time for or interest in Peter’s arrogant self-assertion. “Get behind me, Satan,” he says. Those are the same words Jesus spoke during his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus hears Peter’s rebuke as a temptation to be less than who he is and as a distraction from the work he is about. Maybe that’s true for Peter, and for you and me. Disillusion tempts us to be less than who we truly are, tempts us to be arrogant and self-assertive, tempts us to lose sight of what we are really about.
In our disillusionment we often put our story in front of God’s story, give more credence to what we see than what God sees, and take our story to be more real than God’s story. Isn’t that what Peter has done? Isn’t that what’s going on in the conflicts we have with another, in the times we assert ourselves and negate another, in our words and actions of violence? In our panicked arrogance we can easily and quickly betray ourselves, each other, and God.
Despite what the prophets of doom say or what we feel, the world is not coming to an end, falling apart, or going to hell in a hand-basket. It wasn’t for Peter and it’s not for us. The truth is we don’t understand what is happening and we feel lost, scared, angry, and confused. The old story of power and self assertion no longer fits. It never did but we heard that story and told it to ourselves enough times that we began to believe and invest in it. We need to embrace a different story. Jesus gives Peter and us a new story. He is the new story.
It’s a story of self-denial. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take us theirs cross and follow me.” It’s not just a story that Jesus tells. It’s the story he lives and if any want to become his followers it must become their story.
What would self-denial look like in your life this next week? I am not talking about self-denial as passivity, self-negation, a denial of our needs or desires. It’s not suffering for the sake of suffering as if that is inherently holy or redemptive. Let’s not forget that the first half of Mark’s account of the gospel describes Jesus healing and relieving suffering and oppression. And self-denial is more than just giving up a particular behavior, though that’s sometimes not a bad thing.
What if self-denial is about separating from that which we often use to define ourselves and each other; political parties, national identity, economic status, family of origin, even religion? What if it is about redefining ourselves, our priorities, and our beliefs to be more in line with those of Jesus? What if self-denial is the key to loving our neighbor, our enemy, God, and even ourselves? Maybe self-denial is what makes space and place for another and recognizes her or his life as important and sacred as ours. Maybe self-denial is, paradoxically, what allows us to come alive. Maybe it means re-examining our beliefs and attitudes about who we are, who another is, and who God is. And, finally, maybe self-denial means we don’t take ourselves more seriously than we take God.
Self-denial might just be the medicine for our disillusionment.