Our scripture readings this morning talk about five truths in life:
1 – at some point, everyone and everything will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
2 – at some point, we will let everyone and everything down, anger them, and disappoint them
3 – at some point, we will let ourselves down, anger ourselves, and disappoint ourselves
4 – at some point, our mistaken self-centered conceptions of God will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
5 – the true living God will almost always anger, shock and surprise us, but will never let us down or disappoint us
The Letter of James (our second reading) talks about the first three truths – we all make mistakes, even and maybe especially people who are in positions of authority. That does not mean we are stupid and evil, it just means we are human. That doesn’t mean we should have low standards of behavior for ourselves or anyone else, it just means we need to realize that noone can always reach those standards, so we need to deal with the failures in a mature way – giving people time and space to heal from mistakes and being willing to work with them to grow out of them. Failures and disappointments of ourselves and others can lead to either bitterness and scornfulness, or they can lead to wisdom and compassion.
Usually, when we first realize the mistakes and failures of ourselves and others, we are in our early teens and react in the bitter, scornful way. That is normal. However, as we grow, one of the keys to maturity is to develop the wisdom and compassion that deals with failures and disappointments in a positive way. Like all forms of growth, cultivating wisdom and compassion are not easy, but they are necessary for a happy, full life. The bitter, scornful reactions are easier at the beginning, but if they linger, they reduce us to bitter, scornful people whom noone, including ourselves, can stand to be around. The wise, compassionate reactions are much more difficult at first, but if they are pursued, they lead us to become wise, compassionate people who are a joy to be around. The way away from bitterness toward compassionate takes a lot of prayer, insight, thought, and internal examination, but it is worth all the years of work . And of course, the wisdom and compassion do not come from ourselves – they are gifts from God that we just need to empty our own selfish wills in order to receive. We will never be there completely all the time, but we can always strive to get closer to that goal. It is true that we are not always wise and compassionate, but it is even more true to say that we are not yet always wise and compassionate. Not yet. We must wait for it – it will come slowly. And we must work and wait for it not with the resignation of patience, but with the joy of constancy.
The fourth truth is talked about in our gospel story this morning. People had ideas about who Jesus were, but they were not who Jesus was. Peter wanted Jesus to do what Peter wanted him to do, not what Jesus knew he had to do. Trying to make God fit into our comfortable ideas and desires is called idolatry, and idol worship always leads to disaster, because it means we have founded our lives on false assumptions. When the disaster strikes, we have the same choice that we do when our idolization of other people or ourselves is seen to be false – we can live bitterly, or we can be grateful for finally seeing the truth and so start on the long road to living wisely and compassionately.
We don’t always want to give up our idols – not yet, because just as in our disappointment with human idols, learning from our disappointment with divine idols takes a long time of prayer and insight. It takes the loss of our false, selfish life in order to gain the true life that Jesus gives, as he tells us in the gospel story we heard. It is the fifth truth and it involves the pain of the cross, but it leads to the glory of the cross – the glory that is the truth that everything is not all about us and our comfort. The life that Jesus gives us might be more scary than the false life we try to build, but in the end, it is much less worrisome and much more safe. The true, living God will never let us down, and will never disappoint us. Everyone else and everything else will. That is ok, true life goes on, bigger and better than anything we could have ever imagined. God is what matters, not us. We will be happy , healthy, whole, and safe, because God has smashed our idols and freed us from their grip. Let us not fall into their grasp again, but when we do, may we wisely and compassionately give each other time and space to heal and start over. AMEN