Second Sunday in Lent -- Year B.
Mark 8:31 -- 38
The Elephant in the Living Room
There are times when we do everything we can to avoid the obvious. Some realities that we face are so difficult that we will make every effort to deny their presence. Once again Peter, a bold and wonderful character full of humanness, so much like us, is the fall guy for this gospel text. He is the one who gives voice to the disciples concerns about Jesus teaching 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." Even though Jesus spoke quite openly about this to his disciples, they were quite dense in receiving his word. My hunch is that they didn't want to hear it. Even though theologians have described this dance of teaching and not hearing as the messianic secret I suspect there is something very basic going on here. It seems to me there's something in humanity that refuses to hear difficult truths. Somehow it's easier to dance around the elephant in the living room than it is to face harsh reality.
Jesus word to his disciples, “that the Son of Man will be killed" is a reality so harsh, so foreign to the expectations of those who are following him, that nothing could be heard after those words are spoken. Peter’s visceral response and rejection of Jesus word points to the depth of human emotion. When we think about elephants in the living room of our lives it's easy to look around and see how at times human behavior is more comfortable with denial than with acceptance. A classic example of not facing the elephant in the living room can be seen in family systems when one of the parents is caught in addictive behavior and the rest of the family covers for him or her.
My natural father is an alcoholic. I don't know if he's dead or alive. Years ago I made the decision to wait for him to come to me as part of his recovery program, if he ever entered one, knowing that a relationship would be impossible with him while he remained wed to the bottle. My mother divorced him when I was three years old and in the last 50 years I've seen him a total of four times. When I was in my 20s after graduating from college I had a need to connect with my biological father. I was able to discover that he lived in Baltimore, Maryland. I contacted his home and let him know that I would be coming for a visit. Everything seemed wonderfully normal upon my arrival but as the day progressed the cover-up began to unravel. I discovered that I had two half brothers, he had married again. The younger brother was compliant and the older brother was angry. He, the older boy did not like me being there. I was obviously a threat and I suspect he thought that I would be caught in the web of entanglement which his family had created. As I observed him the elder brother, I noticed much of myself in him. His anger resonated with my own. I had a biological father who was never there for me, one who was more comfortable in his relationship with a bottle then with his family. My feelings of abandonment, of rejection which had turned to anger, were clearly not as intense as the elder boy’s feelings for he was daily challenged by living in the same house with his drunken father while covering the insanity which had ravaged the family -- my family.
After the initial dance, pretending that all was well and what a joy it was that I was finally reunited with this group, things began to break down. I was too angry and upset to play the game of pretending that there was no elephant in the living room. My father began to suggest to me that we could make up for lost time. He suggested that we could enjoy the days ahead as father and son. As he spoke so eloquently yet I found myself seeing through the thin disguise. Around me there was his second wife who seemed almost afraid to speak, my young half-brother who seemed willing to do anything in order to keep the peace and my other half brother who appeared to be a boiling, raging kettle ready to blow. After listening for a while to my father's sonorous speech I broke in and asked a question. "Tell me about Andy," I said, "what does he enjoy?" "What do you do with him?" “Tell me about the way you enjoy life with him."
Andy was my half-brother -- the angry one. I saw so much of myself in him. Perhaps because he was younger and was so caught up in the family system he was unable to detach himself from it and stand up for himself. I had a sense that had I grown up in that system I too would have been so deeply wounded and so very angry that I would have been barely able to function. I saw myself in Andy and felt the need to speak this challenge.
The challenge that I was making was not welcome. My father was deeply offended and retreated to his bedroom. He never came out and he has refused to speak with me ever sense. He even refused to meet his grandchildren, blaming me. The abuse of alcohol can pervert a human being, ruining his or her ability to feel and reason with any kind of a semblance of reality. He had no answer. He had no gracious or real relationship with any member of his family, accept an abusive one. His primary love was the alcohol. After my challenge to him, after he had left the room and retreated to his bed his wife rolled up her sleeves and showed me the bruises on her arms, bruises that she had covered up to protect an image of normalcy in the home. The bruises to her heart and soul may have been far deeper and more painful. Andy was angry with me as well and it was obvious that it would be better for me to leave than to stay. I had stirred up the pot in a way that would wreak havoc on all of them. I am sure he felt resentment towards me because I could leave and he was stuck in the profound sickness of this family system. The younger brother was also at a loss because I had named the elephant in the living room and for him it was better to simply work at compliance and keep the peace, contorting himself and his soul, his heart, his whole being in any direction to avoid the violence that would ensue when reality was named.
Jesus is the one who names the elephant in the living room. Peter and the disciples are the ones who want to avoid the truth at all costs. Some truth we want to hear and some truth we don't want to hear. Lent is a season when we are challenged to face all truth, particularly the truth that we don't want to hear. I think the harshest words that our Lord ever spoke are the words that he spoke to Peter when he said, "Get behind me, Satan!" Our Lord desires to tell his disciples the hard truth, the fact that he will be put to death after being rejected and experiencing deep and painful suffering.
We live in a culture that seems to be spiraling downward. We live in a culture where the holiness and value of life is being continually degraded. The signs of degradation appear more and more frequently upon the bodies of our young people. Some have even called the multiple piercing and tattoos that have become a norm among our young people and some of our older people as well a cult to self-mutilation. The media portrays violence as a norm and our governments engage in wars where the only casualties we seem to care about are our own as if the only lives that matter are American lives.
Presiding at a funeral is difficult no matter what the circumstances of the death may be, because at some level death is not the intended consequence for any of us. Resurrection is the intended consequence and if the disciples were able to listen, to move beyond the part of the truth that they didn't want to hear, had they been able to receive the words of Jesus suffering and death they would have heard him say, "and after three days rise again." The Son of Man's rising to life again was beyond their capacity to understand. And in order to get there, in order to receive the rest of the truth, the truth of deepest consequence and good news they first had to face the challenge of Jesus death.
Luke was 17 years old at the time of his death. He had a reputation at his school as one who was capable of some wildness. He appeared to be a normal kid. He was involved in athletics, he even received a varsity letter his freshman year as a runner. He had the normal struggles of figuring out how to have a relationship with a girl. Yet at times he acted very foolishly and his foolish behavior was more glorified than seen as a cry for help among his peers and his family. He'd once been busted for driving naked. Fortunately for him, the policeman who caught him simply told him to go home, to get off the road. Had he been a few years older he likely would have wound up in jail as a sex offender. The year before Luke's death his best friend took his own life. One year later on his friend’s birthday Luke decided that he would take his own life. He shot himself in the head and soon after he died.
The burial service was hugely attended. Nearly half the students from Luke’s high school were present and the grief was palpable. The cause of death was well known among the students and yet they seemed to desire to celebrate the foolishness of driving naked rather than face the elephant that was in the living room. The violence of Luke's behavior against himself and against the community seemed buried under a shallow slogan and a foolish action which was likely an early warning signal, a cry for help. At the service we named the elephant in the living room. And everyone in attendance was invited to stand up and say out loud, "I stand for life." Then a second step was taken, each person present was invited to find another in the church building and tell them, "I am here for you." After another affirmation of life where we held hands and said out loud, "I am not alone” we sang together, "we shall overcome." One more song was sung after this exercise which affirmed the ever present Spirit of God who is always with us.
If we are going to become followers of our Lord we are going to have to face the truth. And that truth may bring us to harsh and difficult realities in our families, in our communities, in our schools, in our nation, and in the world. Our Lord Jesus stands for truth. And our Lord knows that unless we face the whole truth we will be stuck in our own thinking and our own narrow view of life. Jesus invites us to set our minds on divine things, things that are likely beyond our human capacity, things that don't appear natural to us, things that stretch us beyond our limits, things that our Lord himself will assist us with through the presence, power and indwelling of his Holy Spirit.
Jesus even shows us the way to get beyond ourselves. He says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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."
Over 30 years ago I made that memorable trip to Baltimore, Maryland to meet my natural father as an adult. As painful as that experience was it was necessary for me, so I could move beyond the fantasy of what life would have been like had I grown up with my natural father. Facing the reality of his alcoholism and the dysfunctionality of those who shared in his misery, freed me to love him. A few years after that encounter I wrote a song about his alcoholism and my relationship or lack of relationship with him because of his choice to choose the bottle.
He took a bottle for a bride,
she promised him an easy ride,
does he know the lady lied?
I pray someday he will.
He's held or more than 30 years,
her hollow laughs her empty tears,
and still he swallows all her fears,
I pray he'll let her go….
Facing the elephant in the living room in my family situation allowed me to move into a place of forgiveness, and forgiveness clears a passage where love becomes possible.
Facing the elephant in the living room in naming the violence of suicide, and making the choice to stand for life clears a passage for forgiveness. Each of us gathered for Luke's burial service had intense feelings whether we had named them or not. Feelings that ranged from despair and depression to desperation, to excruciating guilt to anger and rage. In order for healing to occur, forgiveness was necessary and for forgiveness to become possible, the truth must be named.
Jesus’ confrontation of his friend Peter in the harshest terms was an invitation to know the truth. Jesus’ challenge to Peter was that Peter could name the elephant in the living room of his own life. Peter still had not surrendered his will to the Lord. Peter continued to believe his vision for the Messiah was better than the Messiah’s vision. And until Peter could surrender completely his vision and his will to his Lord and Savior he could not be free. Jesus’ challenge is to Peter and to us all. Our Lord's challenge to surrender our life and our will, all that we have and all that we are, our emotions, our ideas and our wills is for our own salvation.
As we move deeper into the Lenten season, let us move deeper into the place of surrender to our Lord. Pray that the Holy Spirit will give us grace to face the elephants in our living rooms. Pray that like Jesus we will be able to reach out and at times even confront one another with the kind of care that moves us to a greater depth of being and to a kind of forgiveness that reflects Jesus own love. Pray that in the midst of our adulterous and sinful generation, of which we are a part, that by grace the Son of Man will find us conformed to his will and to his way. Amen.