What Kind of Animal?

An Earth Day sermon based on Mark 8: 27-38 delivered at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church by by Daniel Green


The Gospel reading today says, "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, 'Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of Men!'"

This is a story of conflict, but it is not so obvious why. Peter, after all, has just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. One might expect Jesus to be happy, but instead he's foretelling his death and quarrelling with Peter about it. And why does he bring Satan into it? Is this a matter of poetic license, or hyperbole? The text almost certainly does not recount a conversation that actually took place. I would guess this is a story about the apostles' struggle over decades to sort through their confusion about who or what their Messiah might be.

Jesus himself is shown as less than eager to embrace the title of Messiah, referring to himself instead as the Son of Man-a term not unlike John Doe. He is more interested in pointing out what the elite in Jerusalem will do to him, and in making his disciples understand that their turn will follow. This text is the outcome of a struggle to know an unexpected and ambiguous savior-what kind of savior he is, what he is saving us from, how we will carry on his saving work. And it reflects the knowledge that being committed to the saving truth is both physically and spiritually dangerous.

Mark's Jesus is taking Peter's recognition that the Messianic moment has arrived, and showing how it can point in two opposite directions. "You are the Christ!" What longing, what hope, what credulity, frankly, given who Jesus is-the carpenter's son from Nazareth. Yet for all that, Jesus gives Peter no credit if he won't go the next step.

Is Peter's Messianic vision rooted in naked dependence on the freedom and generosity of the source of life? Or does it depend on popular support, measurable success, and some supernatural canceling out of the predictable violence of the powers that be?
We don't know what doubts and disappointments of the decades after Jesus' death this passage reflects, or what role the historical apostle Peter may have played in them. What does seem clear is that, by the time of the Gospel's composition, the Messianic hope had been stripped of any but its most essential elements: the courageous and compassionate humanity of Jesus, and the saving encounter with the life of God.

Once, when I was a little boy, I woke up in the middle of the night, having dreamed that my parents had died. I was full of dread. I had never fully grasped before that they were, and that I was, definitely going to die. I lay on my back, my heart pounding. As I recall, I prayed for help. And then, out of the blue, a single simple thought came to me, which immediately gave me quiet and peace. I had the thought of how completely gratuitous it is that there should ever have been anything at all. How wondrously generous it is that a world, the world I live in, would have been created, and sustained through all its countless transformations. I drifted off to sleep.

It was a thought, but it was also a living intuition, a feeling for what is really true. And with it came the assurance that my life, fragile and marked with loss as it was, was intended to be. Who would have created such an enormous and elaborate everything, when nothing would have served as well, but someone brimming over with love?

Fifteen disillusioning years later I was working on an Zen Buddhist organic farm. On the one hand, I was there out of a vague sense that I needed to be healed and transformed in a deep way. On the other, I was there for a definite purpose: I wanted to acquire skills and knowledge that would assist me in saving the world. I had some kind of plan. It involved farming, and intentional community, and the suffering masses.

I harbored a hidden contempt for the other Buddhists, the ones who did the cooking and cleaning, or who devoted themselves to religious study, tea ceremony, and that sort of thing. I was also a secret rival to the other farmers. I wanted to be the best, toughest, smartest Zen farmer of them all. There was at that time another young fellow on the farm named David. David knew a little welding and mechanics, so the farm manager put him in charge of maintaining the equipment. I envied and hated him for it. David was practicing arts that I needed to learn for my world-saving mission.

One day David and I were spreading compost on one of the fields. We did this with pitchforks off the back of a flatbed truck. So there I was, walls of the truck on either side, hating David, working three feet away from him with a pitchfork in my hand. He was crowding me. Every time I started to get into a good compost-flinging rhythm there would be David's fork, his foot, his elbow, or something. And so when I "accidentally" speared his hand with my pitchfork, I convinced myself to feel justified. I had work to do. Couldn't he be less clumsy? A few months later, when David left the farm without saying a word to anyone, just packed up his stuff in the middle of the night and disappeared, I felt triumphant. And ashamed.
It's hard to come to terms with the limits of my own integrity. It's just as hard to accept the limits of my Messianic capabilities. But it would be a living death to abandon entirely the idealistic passions of my youth. I still believe that I have a responsibility to act on behalf of what I know of truth and justice. I still want to see the earth restored to health and beauty, and human beings along with it. But I also pray to see how my moral imagination pales in comparison with the design of the One who imagines the universe. I still have my desire to be a hero. Only I pray for the patience to emulate the Son of Man, whose heroism was to stay in character, and to use means consistent with his ends.

How will I respond to his challenge? With gratitude for the breath of the Spirit, abounding in equality throughout creation? Or with jealous regard for my part in the scheme of salvation, a salvation according to my own prescription?

When I opt for gratitude, all my struggles and fallibility are transparent to the light of love. My learning of the world is humbled by its freedom to be as it will be. But I have the hope of seeing the love that bestows freedom reflected everywhere in creation and in unknown and unimagined depths of my own soul. Offering my efforts to a love that is compassionately present even in my confusion, my arrogance, and my futility is the fundamental practice on which all my work depends, if it would be good work.

When I place conditions on my faith I perpetuate a vast lie, a rupture in the world. Imagining some part of the universe to be outside of love, that act of expulsion becomes my God, a God I can only fear. Fearing what I have cast out, fearing being condemned myself, I project my God onto systems of domination and control. I enthrone my God in social and psychic regimes of sacrifice, of warfare, of exploitation and addiction. I judge and condemn and call that "freedom." All in the hope of earning for some separated part of creation, my self, my family, my species, its share of God's limited pie. Yet even then, I am sustained by love. Jesus does not say to Peter, "Get out of here, Satan!" or "Satan! Go to Hell!" "Get behind me," he says. "Follow me. I have something I want to show you."

According to Gregory of Nyssa's big brother, St. Basil the Great, "The human being is an animal who has received the vocation to become God." In our time, human beings have indeed acquired Godlike power. The bodies of everyone here contain traces of some 500 materials that did not exist a century ago. Human activity is altering the chemical, geological, and biological systems of the earth on a vast scale, resulting in the greatest spasm of species extinction in 65 million years. And we retain the means to destroy entire nations in an instant with poison and fire from heaven. But something tells me this isn't what Basil had in mind.
Last summer I planted a garden on Rick Fabian's roof. Some of you have been there, so you know it is a long way from the ground. If you haven't, let me assure you: it's a long way from the ground. I know because I carried, with some help, large ceramic urns, bags and bags of potting soil, and dozens of plants up all those narrow twisting stairs, past the harpsichord and the antique Chinese furniture and onto the roof.

Among the plants I put up there are a native California salvia, and a honeysuckle vine, both of which have the tubular, nectar-filled blooms favored by hummingbirds. I went back a month or so after the planting was finished, to check up on everything, and while I was up there a ruby-throated hummingbird came by. It fed for a minute on the salvia flowers and then came and hovered for a long pause four or five feet from my face, looking directly at me. Then it gave a cry and shot away like a rocket. I don't know when I have felt so appreciated for my work.

We are animals, St. Basil said, different in degree but not in kind from the others. We are warm, earthy things, with bright eyes, who like milk and sunshine, and the smell of the forest. And our human vocation is one we have received from Another. God, who gives life to the whole universe, yearns for playmates. We once set out to see what could be accomplished by banishing soul from world and appropriating its body for our exclusive use and pleasure. Now the realization of what that has cost us is hard upon us.

But it is not "too late"-or better, it was already too late when Jesus walked the earth. It's not too late for our science to embrace a vision of sacred wholeness and contemplative participation in the subjects of our study. It is not too late to create an economy of beauty and adaptation, able to sustain human and other kind indefinitely. It is not too late for a politics of enlightenment and friendship to establish intimacy and mutual respect on every level of organization.

The banquet is still being offered; let us receive communion. As we befriend life with a self-transcending devotion, the whole universe will flower in us. All that is truly needful, in the way of strength, nourishment, and knowledge, will be given to us without fail. Indeed, it is already present among us. And "neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Daniel Green has worked as a farmer and gardener for most of his life. He received lay ordination in the Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi in 1990, and has been a practicing Episcopalian since 1994. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Integral Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.



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