Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A good story (Matthew 16:21-28)

       Have you ever read a book more than once just because it’s a good story.  Such plotting, characterization, and dialogue draws me again and again to certain books.  The genre of book may change.  A “good story” might be a work of fiction, a play, a collection of short stories, a mystery, or even a graphic novel. 
        On the latter count, I remain intrigued and amazed at the stories found in the “superhero” comics.  In the right hands, a story about Batman does not have to be an Adam West campy-1960s TV farce.  Sometimes the way the mysterious guy in the shadows operates as an unconventional detective tells us something about the world and humanity while we read of yet another adventure as he chases after a brightly costumed villain.
         A good mystery does not have to be about the mystery.  Instead, the cast of characters can captivate you, seeing human nature on display as the detective pieces together “whodunit”.   The settings may change, yet the plot of human vanity, avarice and hubris underlying a good mystery novel still tells a good story about humanity in all its failings and vanities.
         A good story is found in that book you discovered years ago at a library sale and after reading it several times over, you would be hard pressed to donate it for a similar library sale.  Instead, you keep it on that shelf where you can find it again in a year or two, ready to retrace the plotline and recall a great line, and hope that nobody calls while you’re reading.

         A good story stays with you.

         I remember being read to by my parents and my grandmother Hugenot who lived on the farm with us.  In turn, they encouraged me to start reading back to them.  I don’t remember everything I heard told to me or that I read when getting more excited with the idea of reading as something that was fun to do.  Nonetheless, a few stories stay with me.  Indeed, I think about stories from childhood from time to time, not as mere stories to be told to children and then put away (almost as if in adulthood they become an embarrassment).  No, a good story learned early on can be a long-term investment, a story that you latch onto and treasure.  Values and ways of looking at the world can be shaped by a fable told well by a loved one interested in you being more than entertained just before bedtime.  That story from long ago can be still resounding within you as you navigate through the adult world where shades of grey await.

             A good story stays with you.

           In the gospels, we encounter a number of times when Jesus offers a story to his disciples, the crowds that gather from time to time, and even when in the midst of those at the ready to criticize and discredit him.  A parable spun while at the dining table may seem innocent enough, yet from such stories (even two millennia later), readers of the gospel still puzzle and marvel (and with parables, face it, puzzle some more) what sort of faith is required if this parable is measurement of God’s expectations of the world.
            The gospels have differing approaches, yet the same end overshadows the four gospels:  a cross looms in the narrative, a part of the plot that cannot be omitted if you leave it out.  Jesus will go to Jerusalem.  A disciple will betray Jesus.  Jesus will die.  The story does not end there (indeed, the resurrection is a good story that is always meant to stay with you!), yet the story of Jesus’ life and resurrection does not skip his death.
            In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commends Simon Peter’s faith and envisions the followers becoming “Church”, built upon such faith.  While Jesus teaches his faithful, Simon Peter is the one who cannot handle what he is hearing.  He cannot imagine the necessity of this story to unfold this way.  Simon resists what he is hearing as it does not fit the story he’s imagining is “the story” of a wise teacher he has declared just moments ago to be “son of the living God”.  What sort of teacher claims death by the hands of his enemies as something that must come to pass?  In the minds of some, this would sound awfully weak and downright foolhardy if you knew something bad was going to happen and yet still went there—willingly!

            Matthew’s gospel is quite frank.  As Jesus begins to teach about what will come to pass, the narration claims, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.”  The operative word here is “must”.  As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, we learn the story of Jesus by way of this gospel’s particular interest in discipleship, questions of what it means to follow Jesus.  Consider this interest in discipleship runs concurrently with the greater plot of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and you will understand why Jesus reacts strongly to Simon Peter’s dismissive word.  If you follow me, there’s a cross for you to pick up and carry as well!  Deny yourself and follow my path, no matter where it leads.
            Just as in the text, we readers have to consider the challenge of this story.  What happens when a story begins to work on us, asking hard questions, unsettling our conscience, disrupting our sense of “how things work” in the world?  The story Jesus is telling is one of unveiling how God shall work through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and in turn, summon a body of women and men into a people gathered around a story with a cross inescapably in its telling.   Do we toss the story aside for a narrative that “sells better” in the world, or do we pick up this story and follow Jesus?
             A good story stays with you.

            Simon Peter’s brash reaction is not that unfamiliar when we consider faith something tame.  We don’t like faith sometimes to be goading our conscience, or we don’t give faith enough credit to fan to flame the hope life is otherwise missing.  Does the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide a framework for how we live and love, how we treat one another and ourselves?  Is our faith something we shelve away when it’s not “Sunday, 9:30 AM” or a seven-day-a-week essential?
            In the gospels, discipleship is not following Jesus and riding his coattails to certain power and glory.  (The Church has struggled with that for centuries, even in our present day.)  Discipleship is about being a learner, sitting at Jesus’ feet, walking by his side, learning to love God and neighbor just like Jesus, and understanding that following Jesus means you don’t follow your own will and ways, nor that of any other.
            From time to time, I return to this word of wisdom from 20th-century monastic writer Thomas Merton, who observed, “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”
            This story of Jesus calling his disciples to the fullness of faith (self-denial and cross included) is not about having it all together all the time, but remembering how your story fits into the greater story of the way of Jesus.  Do you find what you read in the gospels in your day-to-day living? How does your following Jesus influence the many calls to follow a lot of other voices competing for your time and allegiance?  Does the gospel influence you as you ponder what to do next when work or school or family issues make you toss and turn in the middle of the night?
            Remember and take heart:
a good story stays with you.

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