Reflection – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Cars, clownfish and the cross
Did you see, in the news last week, the report that motorists could be allowed to let their cars drive themselves on motorways, using automated technology, as early as next year, under proposals being considered by the government? Self-driving cars, eh? We truly are living in the world of The Jetsons! And I wonder whether the concept of driverless technology fills you with excitement…or dread!?! For a non-driver, Luddite, control freak who’s possibly seen one too many films about the rise of the robots, I certainly lean toward the second of the two! Well, in today’s gospel passage, we’re not quite faced with self-driving cars but self-driving lives. You might remember from last week that Peter had just been given the keys to the kingdom and we see that the first thing he does with his new authority is to attempt to swerve Jesus away from Jerusalem – the designated destination – to which Jesus replies, in The Message translation of the passage, ‘You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am’. Let’s see how the conversation goes in the more traditional version now as we hear from the NSRV –
Reading: Matthew 16:21-27
‘If any want to become my followers,’ Jesus says, ‘let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’.
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus.
Not generally known for his direct and succinct teaching, here Jesus seems to be doing just that – directly and succinctly teaching us the basic instructions for being his disciple. And they are…shall we say…less than attractive.
Today, of course, the impact of those words – particularly regarding the cross – the torture tool of the world’s superpower – might be somewhat lost on us but any PR team today would have some strong advice for Jesus;
‘Love the passion JC. Very…very real. Very authentic. Love it…Only…only could we perhaps dial down the painful death vibe just a smidge? It doesn’t go down well with our focus groups. So, let’s lose the cross motif for now, okay, and maybe…maybe the whole deny yourself line could be addressed too. We are trying to attract more disciples, remember! How about something a bit more upbeat instead? How would you feel about the line ‘free yourself’ rather than ‘deny yourself’? Or ‘find your true calling’…something like that?’
And Jesus, once again, would have been telling Satan to get behind him! And much as it’s fun to mock the sometime false world of public relations, they would kind of have a point here with Jesus. His words are a little downbeat. They seem a little less than good news. Any church that headed up their evangelism or community outreach with a ‘deny yourself, prepare for your death and follow Jesus’ banner might not find hoards flocking to their services (remember those?!).
What’s more, this passage has been misused by the Church over the years to collude with, or actively promote, prejudiced, oppressive or otherwise unhealthy teaching – from encouraging abused partners and gay believers to ‘deny themselves’ and stay silent, to spreading the idea that pain or torture can somehow be paths to holiness. I cannot believe that this is what God would want for us, or that this is what Jesus – he who came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10)– is saying here.
That’s well and good Phil, you might be thinking. You’ve told us what you think Jesus isn’t saying here but how about you share what you think he is saying?!
You’ve got a point! And so to do this, we join a clownfish called Marlin and a blue tang called Dory as they muse on their present condition in the belly of a whale. That’s right, we find ourselves in the world of ‘Finding Nemo’ – a wonderful film which has nods to the Biblical stories of the Adam & Eve in Eden, the lost son, Christ on the cross and, of course, Jonah.
For those of you who have not seen the film – where have you been?! – but also, a quick summary (with spoilers!). For reasons that are explained in the opening credits of the film, Marlin is a very anxious control freak who obsesses about the safety of his only child – Nemo – who is his pride and joy, his life really. Well, Nemo gets taken away from their paradise home and is imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank which leads to Marlin travelling across the ocean to save him with the help of new friends, most especially Dory – the aforementioned friendly blue tang with a terrible memory. At one point, Marlin and Dory – who claims she can speak to whales – have been swallowed by a blue whale, leading to Marlin giving up on finding his son; giving up on life. He believes that the whale is taking them in the wrong direction and that it will lead to their deaths. Dory, however, perceives the situation rather differently as she attempts to translate the whale’s latest communication:
Dory: He either said we should go to the back of the throat, or he wants a root beer float.
Marlin: Of course he wants us to go there. That’s eating us! How do I taste, Moby?!…You can’t speak whale! You think you can do these things but you can’t!
Frustrated the fish aren’t doing what he suggests, the whale lifts up his tongue to try forcing them to where they need to go. They hang on to his tongue.
Dory: He says it’s time to let go! Everything’s gonna be alright!
Marlin: How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?
Dory: I don’t.
And with that, first Dory, then Marlin, let go; allow the whale to take them where they need to be; eventually find Nemo; and begin a whole new life together, liberated from the shackles of Marlin’s need for control.
This is what I think Jesus’ words ‘deny yourself’ mean. Let go. We need to let go of our need to control; to always be right; to always win. Let go of those walls we’ve built up; those acquisitions we think signal our worth; that image we project to others in order to protect our own ego. Let go of our grudges, our grievances and judgments. Let go of our need to control other people – even God – accepting that we can’t attain our salvation; that we can’t gain God’s love…because we’re already embraced by it.
Then, once our hands no longer cling to the things that purport to bring us life, they are free to take up the cross into our lives and community. Not the Empire cross of oppression and pain; but Christ’s cross of transformation and salvation. To take up the symbol that says there is nothing that can ever separate us from God’s love; that says God is with us in the belly of the whale; the symbol that shows that God will take our brokenness, our violence, our hatred and respond with forgiveness, companionship and peace.
To do so will, inevitably, involve sacrifice. It will mean battling those persistent demons that tempt us to the easy life; it will mean having to let go of own egocentric outlook time and time again after we’ve picked it back up when we thought no one was looking; it will mean letting God be in the driver’s seat with us swimming to the back of the whale’s throat when asked…or pushed. Such faith is not easy but Jesus never suggested it would be otherwise.
And when we have let go, picked up the cross and followed Jesus in our words, actions, prayers…then we might learn something of what it means to lose the lives that we have so anxiously created and discover the one that God always meant for us to have. A life not of control, safety and shallow comfort but of faith, vulnerability and wild hope.
He says it’s time to let go.
How do we know something bad’s not going to happen? We don’t. But that cross we’re called to carry tells us that even when it does, God is with us, and, ultimately, Dory was right. For in the end, everything’s gonna be alright. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Today’s accompanying hymn:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
©1987 WGRG, Iona Community
PRAYERS FOR LETTING GO
written by John Henson
Loving God, you call us into the freedom of the Good News. Jesus sets the captive free. But freedom is a strange experience for us. We are used to our chains, almost fond of them. We are afraid to let them go.
Loving God, Grant your help.
So many people today are prisoners of an obsession, something that takes hold over the mind and gives it no rest. We can be obsessed by almost anything. We can be obsessed by our house work; our job if we can’t let it go when we leave work; we can be obsessed by sport or our favourite team and not able to talk about much else; we can be obsessed by politics; we can be obsessed by religion; we can be obsessed by another person, someone we idolize, or someone we look upon as an enemy; we can be obsessed by sex; we can be obsessed by tidiness; we can be obsessed by clothes; we can be obsessed by collecting things; we can be obsessed by shopping and spending; we can be obsessed with the internet and our mobile phones. None of these things are wrong in themselves, only if they take us over and we cannot break free.
Loving God, Grant your help.
So many people today are feeling stressed out. They are afraid they or their loved ones will get the virus; they are stressed by the curtailing of their physical freedom; they are confined to home; they are unable to meet with friends; they cannot go to favourite clubs or concerts; their favourite restaurant may be closed; they cannot be near to others or touch them; they cannot go on holiday to their favourite resort; they cannot make plans for the future; they may lose their jobs. They are enslaved by frustration and anxiety.
Loving God, Grant your help.
We are all afraid of death. Even those of us with a strong faith. It is as if Jesus never conquered death to set us free from it. Some fear for loved ones. Others, more than usually now, are grieving the death of lived ones, finding it difficult to let their grief go. Life has changed; they depended so much on it carrying on the same. We have to let our loved ones go. Whether or not we believe we shall be with them again in another life, in this life we shall not see them again. Then there is our own death, which now perhaps we are more aware may come sooner rather than later. We have to let go of our total dependence on this life. The planet is changing; the weather is changing; peoples are on the move to somewhere safer. It is now the scientists rather than religious wackos who are telling us we may be living in the Last Days. This is not our permanent home. We have to let it go.
Loving God, Grant your help.
In the Name of Jesus,
We don’t seem to know
how to let go;
the progress is slow.
So all stressed out,
locked in, locked out;
strong tower, walled about.
Safe in anxiety,
threatened by liberty,
longing to be free.
Ditch your oppressed mind;
welcome thoughts more kind;
but how find?
Let go, and see
the leaves upon the tree;
let go, and be.
God says, “Let me!”
(John Henson 25/8/20)