The following homily was delivered by Leora Weitzman at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on August 21, 2011. The readings from the common lectionary for the day included Isaiah 51:1-6, Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20.
The essence of Buddhism, I once read, can be expressed in two words: Not … Always … So.
A lot of things are not always so in today’s readings. In Isaiah, what was desert… becomes garden. The earth itself, and the heavens… will one day vanish. Despite this, salvation… is forever. Salvation may look, from time to time, like gardens, or like life on earth… but this is not always so.
What else is not always so? Our gifts aren’t all the same. Some of us are good organizers or planners. Others are visionaries. Is one better? Is the other not a real gift? How far would either get without the other?
I struggle with this at work sometimes, judging others for not being more reliable or myself for not being more intuitive. In truth, we all need each other. Just lately we’ve begun to gel as a team, and when we’re at our best together, I feel like part of a great coordinated Being with a mind of its own. Like part of a greater Body, in fact, just as Paul says.
I invite you into a brief dialogue with Paul’s expanded version in first Corinthians.
What’s a gift you really wish you had? Say to yourself, “I am not (patient, loving, whatever)”—and now listen:
If the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? …..
Now—what’s a gift you do have that you sometimes miss in those around you? Think of a time you were really fed up, and say in your mind to someone who doesn’t show that gift, “I don’t need you!” And now listen:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
So does giftedness always show up like the gifts you have? Or like the gifts you wish you had? Not always so!
That brings us to the Gospel. Having grown up Jewish, though nonreligious, I felt a duty to look into what it meant in first-century Judaism to identify someone as Messiah. Guess what. Was there one set meaning for Messiah? Not always so! In fact, I found a reference to a book called, “First-century Judaisms and their Messiahs.”
Until Jesus, the title Messiah—anointed one—was used quite seldom in Scripture, and never with “the” in front of it. An anointed one might be a prophet, or a king… a religious or a political leader. Some Jews thought a military leader would arise to free them from Roman occupation. At the other end of the spectrum, “anointed” was also linked with “servant.” It was Christian theology that tied all these together.
Christian theology… perhaps beginning with Peter. Paradoxical Peter with his heart of gold and his nerves of…water. Today, he’s rock, seeing with divine vision. Next week, he’s a Satan and a stumbling-block, seeing with all-too-human eyes as he seeks to dissuade Jesus from his divine destiny. If ever there was a person who is “not always so”… And he gets the keys to the kingdom?
To make sense of this, I’d like to look at another so-called rock in Scripture, none less than God Creator. Twelve years ago I was struggling with this image of God during a 30-day retreat. My complaint was that, from my perspective, God was thoroughly unreliable. (Notice a trend in what I like to complain about?) Both my life and the world were in utter chaos. What evidence was there anywhere for God as a rock?
My spiritual director was working the application of senses: what does something look like, sound like, taste like? Specifically, what does God Creator feel like?
To make my complaint utterly clear, I snapped out, “Squishy.” My wise director simply said, “And what else?”
To which I found myself replying, “Squishy, but alive! Like the frog that startled me by jumping out of my path this morning.”
God Creator is alive. Alive, surprising, multiple. Variable, to fit each occasion. Spontaneous…and, after all—creative. What two works of art are alike, what two trees, what two elements? Not to mention two lives, or two situations.
Which is why philosophers have still not agreed on one true definition of right and wrong. And the philosophers of Peter’s culture were the religious scholars. On account of their knowledge of the Law, they were given the authority to allow and forbid, to bind and loose, to open and close the gates of heaven.
Some have done so with great insight. But the insight has been the key, not the Law. The keys to heaven do not ultimately derive from a legal formula. “Not always so” is the very essence of creativity and Creation, and to discern right from wrong in every case requires a living, prophetic key-holder who can tell, not what flesh and blood has revealed, but God in heaven.
Jesus, I suspect, was not giving the keys to Peter personally, nor even just to his followers, but to the part within each of us that sees as the Creator sees. The part that understands what Peter will deny in next week’s Gospel, that Godly life includes crucifixion on the way to resurrection. For a faith that takes crucifixion in stride for the sake of the new life that rises from it is a faith against which the gates of Hades (or death) indeed will not prevail. In God’s marvelous and many-faceted creation, even death is “not always so.”