Michael McCarthy was 7 the year his mom, Norah, went to an asylum after a mental breakdown. he and his older brother lived with grandparents while she was away. He says he felt nothing. Went numb. He grew up without a mom, but, later, in his thirties, had a reunion of a wonderful kind with Norah, and developed a very close and loving relationship. Then she died. Again, the strange numbness. He found himself unable to grieve for his mom, and sought professional help. In counseling, he was helped to find the buried hurt and rage his 7-year old self had tucked away when his mother had - to his 7-year-old mind - abandoned him.
I came to understand what had happened, and the fact was that when my mother had gone away when I was seven, I had hated her for that. I had hated her because she hadn’t said farewell to us or anything like that; she’d just gone away and left me, although my psyche did not allow me to admit that, so it turned into indifference.The dead core of hurt came back to life. He was able to weep and to feel again the love he still felt for his mom.
Michael took his own children to his mom’s grave to try and explain all this to them, and, as he struggled for the right words, a dead leaf fluttered down and landed on his mom’s grave. Except - it wasn’t a leaf, it was a peacock butterfly. And he decided to pour his love for his mom into a memorial project, with his kids, of going to see all 58 species of butterfly that live in the British Isles. Because he was the environmental editor of a large newspaper, the Independent, he invited the public at large to participate, and his memorial to Norah transformed into a national project to save and conserve endangered species of butterflies. Norah came back to life in the Great British Butterfly Hunt of 2007.
Something terrible - a little boy’s loss of his mom - turned into something wonderful - a parade of lepidopterans, from the Granville Fritillary, found only on the Isle of Wight, to the purple emperor, to the large blue, the elusive brown hairstreak. the threatened Duke of Burgundy, and the majestic and beloved swallowtail. The entire country got involved in trying to save a precious, environmentally stressed species.
Out of something terrible - a crippling breakdown, a beloved parent’s death - came something wonderful. And I think that’s kind of what Jesus and the gospels are trying to get us to see today.
Remember last weeks gospel when Jesus was asking the congregation of his followers, “What are people saying about me? Who do men and woman say that I am?” And they gave him various answers - Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the other prophets. And Jesus made the question more personal: “But…who do YOU say that I am?” And Peter, never one to hesitate when a big question was on the table, busted out with an outrageous, dangerous and revolutionary claim, “You are the Messiah/Christ, the Son of the Living God” You are the one who is going to take down the hated pagan tyrant Caesar and restore our kingdom to God and to Glory!
Jesus was happy. Complimentary! “I’m going to give you an new name for saying this, my brother! Your name isn’t Simon any more. From now on we call you by your middle name, “Peter”, which means “Rock,” or “Rocky.” And “Rocky, YOU are the first member and role model for my hell beating, death defeating company of sinful saints which someday will rescue the lost and oppressed and open the gates of heaven to one and to all!”
And then, Boom! the mood shifts dark, in our gospel for today: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
“No way!” Peter objects. Peter contradicts. The Messiah doesn’t die, the Christ doesn’t suffer, the Son of God doesn’t knuckle under to the bureaucracy in the capital city. Peter sees Jesus leading a conquering arm up to the steps of the holy place, toppling the statues of the Roman generals placed there, sitting on a big, golden throne with Peter at his right hand to carry out his orders. “This shall never happen to you Jesus! You will not suffer and die! You are God’s hand picked victor!
“Out of my way, Peter,” Jesus gently replies. “Back off. These are human, egotistical, power-hungry thoughts. You may not know it, but you are doing Satan’s work, you are trying to trip me up, like a stone or a root in my path. The way that God has chosen for me is not the way of dominance, not the way of might makes right, not the way of the warrior-king or military force. What God is putting before me is the path of suffering and self-sacrifice, the path of non-violent, unconditional love.”
Then Jesus makes it extremely personal, so personal that it’s hard to hear, perhaps especially now, in this moment of dramatic social change and conflict: “If anyone wants 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 will find it. For the Son of Man is to come with his angels and the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
The same, or at least a similar pattern, to the life history of Michael McCarthy: something hard and painful and difficult, then the payoff, a festival of butterflies. In Jesus case, the persecution, the suffering, the death in Jerusalem followed by resurrection on the third day, In the case of the followers - potentially, us - the path of self denial, a personal cross, a life given away in service, a life treasured and precious and given back again by God, who is eternal.
I’ve been thinking about this in a few different ways. The first is musical. Way back there in my late 20’s and 30s I sang in a choir in West Philadelphia, and one of the anthems we sang was the spiritual, “Good News.” “I got a home up in-a the kingdom, ain’t a that good news. I got a home up in-a the kingdom, ain’t a that good news! I’m a gonna lay down this world, shoulder up-a my cross, take it home-a to my Jesus, ain’t a that good news!”
It seems to me what Jesus is telling Peter and us is to put what we know of the Kingdom of heaven first and put our own safety and security and happiness second. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Seek ye first the kingdom or the kin-dom of God and whatever else you need will be provided to you.
I am not a jolly mask-wearing person. I have a deviated septum and nose breathing is hard, and mouth breathing dries me out and that blankety-blank mask can feel like a clammy hand over my face trying to choke me. But I understand the principle that me wearing a mask to protect you, and you wearing a mask to protect me protects not only you and me, but also everyone else we come in contact with. Jesus is asking his followers to put limits on their own freedom of movement and possessions and speech for the sake of the welfare of the whole community of God. Bearing a cross and denying oneself is like wearing a mask and washing your hands and maintaining social distance in a time of contagious infectious disease.
Besides living during a season of biological epidemic, we are also living during an epidemic of hate. Yesterday I heard the story of a gentleman named Frank Nitty from Milwaukee who was so moved by the experiences of violence against Black people he decided to walk from Milwaukee to Washington DC to participate in the August 28 March on Washington. 750 miles in 24 days. “Hey, Spook, get off the road!” was the first thing he heard when he crossed the state line, Shots were fired in his direction. The “N” word was yelled at him several times a day. Gas stations closed their bathrooms so that marchers in the group couldn’t relieve themselves. BUT I also know that some of the people shouting those insults are suffering too. Their jobs have disappeared. They’ve lost their chance at gaining a middle-class life. Their political leaders and their media stars are telling them that people of color and immigrants are being unfairly favored. When the financial crisis in 2008 happened, the bankers got bailed out and lots of hopeful homeowners got thrown out and there are millions of white working class folks who feel like the system is rigged against THEM.
We know that hate happens when people feel threatened and humiliated, and there’s lots of that going around. Terrible things happen. People react, choosing up sides, peaceful demonstrations provide cover for violence, which begets more violence, and all of us want to duck and cover in whatever place of safety we can find. Unless we are part of a gun-toting culture, and maybe then we think we should arm ourselves and go out to defend the police. And then more terrible things happen.
But I want to remind you of Michael McCarthy whose mom had a breakdown when he was 7 years old. To his seven-year old mind it felt like she had abandoned him, and he felt hatred towards his mom. Which was impermissible, so he went numb Only much later, when his mom had died, was he able to identify the hatred he’d walled up inside his soul, and to let it heal, and then he was able to turn that healed hatred into a nation-wide movement to identify and to help save Great Britain’s butterflies.
Jesus invites his followers to join him in a lifestyle of death and resurrection. We human beings are fragile, complicated creatures, capable of great goodness, and also of great harm. Our society, which has taken great pride since WWII in being the good guys on the block is seeing a different side of ourselves. Like Michael McCarthy, we are being asked - by history, by God, I believe - to go back and excavate the buried hate so that we can find the butterflies of new possibility, new community, new meaning to the words “liberty and justice for all.” Out of the season of Covid - new compassion. Out of the season of hatred and division - new unity and higher purpose.
How do we do this? One thing is to try and turn down the volume. Yelling doesn’t help. Take lots of times out. Pray the serenity prayer - “God, grant me the serenity/ to accept the things I cannot change,/ the courage to change the things I can,/ and the wisdom to know the difference”. Listen more than we speak. Listen to the people we agree with, but even harder to the people with whom we disagree. Vote - and encourage everyone we know to do the same.
And, as praying people, ask God, every day, to teach us and to show us what it means to “lay down this world, shoulder up my cross and take it home to Jesus, holding out for good news.”