A message presented for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA on March 1, 2015By Rev. Tanya Marcovna Barnett (Disciples of Christ)
Tonight in this sacred space, we will dim the lights and light candles. Several of us will gather in silence for Evensong – that beautiful, contemplative service that happens the first Sunday of each month. From the silence will grow prayers, readings, more silence, and special chants. The chants come largely from the Taize songbook; they are prayerfully repetitive, slowly centering. Many of you may know that there is a community, in France, that birthed these chants: the Taize community. Perhaps some of you have visited the community. Taize is made up of about 100 brothers who come from Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions and from over 30 countries. The Taizé community was founded by Brother Roger Shultz – a Protestant who, during WWII, felt called to a life of Christian community dedicated to simplicity and compassion, and to providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the war – especially Jews from over the nearby boarder with Germany. Since 1951, the brothers have lived in small fraternities among God’s most vulnerable throughout the world. The brothers continue to return to the “mother house” in France to renew their souls and their bonds of deep love for God and each other.
The brothers aren’t the only ones who come and go from the mother house. There are “sisters” from a variety of orders who work with the community and often live in a neighboring village. And, since the early 1960’s, the Taize community has grown to become a very important site for Christian pilgrimage. Each year, over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. To visit the “mother” community is to glimpse God’s Kindom – a place in which every brother, sister, guest, and pilgrim can experience a material and spiritual state of “enough.”
I have had privileged opportunities to be a Taize pilgrim. My most memorable stay in the community was one Lenten season over 20 years ago. It was my first stay and, almost immediately, the community seemed to fit my soul to a T. Here’s what I experienced: thousands of young, Christian sisters and brothers from all over the planet who had made their way to this small patch of Earth – many of whom came from recent-former Eastern Block countries… thrilled to meet other young people and worship without fear! It was like a real Pentecost experience – dozens of different languages within earshot, but always feeling like I could understand and be understood. The air was simply electric, buzzing with the Holy Spirit. At the center of this energy was the worship space – an odd, circus-like tent – big enough for thousands to convene, to wonder and be awestruck, and to be silent and chant. The chants connected us all – they wove our languages and our hungry hearts together. During Holy Week, there were some of us who stayed in the worship tent from Munday Thursday through the Easter Vigil – praying without ceasing, sleeping on the floor as needed, waking up to a new sense of Resurrection for our world. It was good fun! I felt as if I never wanted to leave Taize. And with less than $50 and an open rail-ticket in my possession, and no real sense of my own “home,” why would I want to leave? I did minor cleaning chores and in return I enjoyed more than enough food, shelter, friendship, and Holy/kairos time. Over the course of weeks, I fell into a beautiful groove of simple meals, prayer-filled walks, joyful service, fellowship, prayer, chanting, and at day’s end: grateful rest.
Then, for some reason that I really can’t remember, one day I started thinking about leaving the community. As this thought grew so did my anxiety about leaving; so I decided to turn to one of the brothers whom I trusted for guidance. His name was Frere Parfait, meaning “Brother Perfect,” so of course I turned to him often. This time I turned to him with the hope that maybe he would convince me to stay and work in the community indefinitely. After sharing my anxiety about leaving, Brother Perfect told me a brief parable from his home in Senegal. He said, “A monkey cannot climb a tree if his hands are full of food; the monkey must learn to eat only what he needs that day and trust that God will provide for his future needs. Otherwise the monkey cannot live as God intends.” Then Brother Perfect walked away – the strange parable still hanging in the air.
Well, I didn’t expect, understand, or frankly like his parable. It seemed that he had likened me to a greedy and foolish monkey. What was worse, he seemed to be advocating that I leave and let go of the precious security, care, and meaning that I found in the community. Let go for what?? I had nothing to “go” to – at least nothing that I could see at the time. In reply to the Brother, I remember saying “thank you,” but thinking angrily “forget you!” After my hanger had cooled, a truth of the parable struck me. He and I both knew that I had reached the limit of my time in this community, even though I didn’t want to let go. He and I both knew that my life and work would take place beyond the bounds of this community, but at the time I didn’t want this.
How hard it is to let go of something that feels so right, so secure, and even holy! It’s especially hard if it seems like there’s nothing waiting on the other side of the “release” – just open, empty hands, insecurity, and risk. In this week’s Gospel reading, we witness Peter who has hold of something so right, so secure, and (in his mind) even holy – something that he will not release without a fight. This something is his notion of Jesus as Messiah. Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Peter has left his entire livelihood as a fisherman – his only means of survival for himself and for his family – in order to follow Jesus. Peter does so because he believes that Jesus is the Messiah – the one who would free God’s people, Israel, from crushing, oppressive Roman occupation and restore their lives, wealth, land, honor, and political power. Peter’s Messiah is the enfleshed God who is invincible, never vulnerable, always victorious. Like a hungry dog who’s found a meaty bone, Peter holds onto this idea of Messiah, because his life – and the lives of everyone he cares about – depends on it. And so far, the pay-off for Peter’s risky investment seems positive. Peter witnesses Jesus casting out demons, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, calming storms, raising the dead, feeding thousands, walking on water. For Peter, this surely is but a small foretaste of the coming end to suffering, poverty and oppression.
So Peter – with bone in mouth – must practically be salivating while he publicly and correctly declares that Jesus is Messiah! Which is what he has just done in the verses that precede today’s reading – Mark 8: 27-30 reads:
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[a] 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
But Jesus’ doesn’t reward Peter with a “good boy!” in response. Instead Jesus basically says, “drop it!” Here are Jesus’ words again:
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. …“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Suffering, rejection, death, self-denial, loss of everything? Peter won’t hear of it… and he barks his disapproval right into Jesus’ face. Maybe Peter feels like I did when Brother Perfect told me to “drop it,” you monkey! Maybe Peter even voiced his “forget you!” frustration. In varying degrees, we all share an instinct for self-preservation and long for security, prestige, and well-being. So, perhaps like Peter, we may find Jesus’ words stinging, disappointing, or confusing. Why would we choose suffering rejection, insecurity, and maybe death? Why would we choose to model our lives after the One who would suffer greatest insecurity and cruelty, be stripped of prestige, and lose His own life – and, lest we forget: rise again?
Lest we forget… Jesus’ life and ministry didn’t end when he let go of himself, when let go of his very life. If Jesus’ had held onto Peter’s perception of Messiah, perhaps their little band of freedom fighters might have nipped at the heal of the Roman Empire, or maybe even caused a significant wound. But, God wanted something greater – something that would last for all time and for all of creation. This “something more” was far beyond Peter’s imagination and, I suggest, still lies far beyond our own grasp today. This something has everything to do with God entering into the empty, open, broken places in the world and reclaiming them as God’s own. It is only then that God can do something much greater than we can ever imagine.
Here we are, in Lent – the season of letting go, of self-emptying. Whatever I’ve come to believe about this season, I no longer think that it’s about suffering minor inconveniences – like giving up chocolate. And, I certainly don’t think it’s about trying to please God through my “sacrifices” – I don’t worship this kind of God. For the early Church and for Eastern Orthodox churches today, Lent is to be a spiritual springtime in which we get to enjoy those God-given “limits” that are life-giving to ourselves and to others. Imagine: limits that are life-giving and life-restoring for all creation. Even though our culture would have us believe otherwise, there are God-given limits to what we can do in a given day; limits to what we can own, consume, and take on; limits to how much media stimulation our brains can take in and how much information our souls can absorb. I reached the limit of my blessed time in Taize, Peter reached the limit of his precious ideology… then there comes a frightening letting go so that God can do something much greater. In Lent, we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable place of letting go of things that feel so very blessed, something worth doggedly pursuing. Maybe it’s letting go of a job prospect, a “cause,” or even a relationship. One Lent, I let go of a beloved boyfriend, knowing that we had reached the limits of a healthy relationship. One Lent, I gave up grieving over the war in Iraq because my crying daily, for months on end, had reached its limit – knowing that the sorrow was too excessive to ever be life-giving. One Lent, a friend decided to “fast” from driving his car. One Lent, another friend decided to “fast” from self-hatred. In all of these cases, Lent serves as the time of creating open space for God to enter our ordinarily airtight lives in order something much greater.
Author Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr writes, “Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty. It leads me to remember that if I am not fed I will die. …Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am. I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand. I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God. I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ.” “Standing before God hungry . . . poor . . . empty” may seem utterly foolish in today’s world. But like the “barren” Sarai in our Genesis reading, and like Jesus, and even like Peter, the “one who is empty” stands open to receive and share the fullness of Grace.
St. Augustine of Hippo said, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” Lent… this springtime for our souls. Perhaps this is a good time to let go.