Ikea and the Cowboy (homily)
August 28, 2011
Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
Last week Barb and I drove up to Portland to the big Ikea store, near the airport, and it was like traveling to a new country. I thought we might need a passport. There were hundreds, thousands, of beds and sofas and shelves and coffee tables, and they were all so organized, into styles and finishes and modules and units, as far as the eye could see. It was like you’d somehow walked into a website. You were inside it. There was all this information in front of you, all these bits of data, and all you had to do was click on something to make it your own.
I don’t want to criticize Ikea itself, necessarily. When we can afford it, we’ll probably buy something there, as we buy things at lots of places, as we all do. But I think what I experienced at Ikea is “the spirit of the age,” as St. Paul puts it: the spirit of information and acquisition, of mass production, of consumption and overconsumption. This is the air we breathe and the water we swim in, and this is what we must not conform ourselves to, St. Paul tells us today, must not give in to, and this is what at this point in the gospel St. Peter still doesn’t get.
Peter, at this point, is still conforming. He’s still imagining the church to come as something very like the Church of Ikea, organized and under control, a way of getting things and having things, and of getting and having so many things that he won’t have to worry anymore. Jesus will make his life clear and Jesus will make his life easy.
But Jesus says no, and he says it emphatically. He says that that way of thinking is an “obstacle” to him. That that way of thinking is even Satanic. Yes, he is the “messiah,” but that doesn’t mean for him what Peter assumes it means. He’s not coming to turn Israel into some giant, multi-national corporation. He’s not coming to maximize profits. What “messiah” means for Jesus, what he makes it mean, is to give all that up, for good, to give everything away, to let it all go, all that grasping and wanting, all that producing.
The psychologist Carl Jung believed that people suffer because they try to escape from suffering. A certain amount of suffering is just part of life, it’s legitimate, and we simply have to face it. “It’s not that suffering or failure might happen,” Richard Rohr explains, “or that it will only happen to you if you are bad, or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it.” No. “It will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey.”
This is what Peter has yet to learn at this point in the gospel, but what he will learn, by the end. That, as one Zen master put it, from the point of view of the ego, the spiritual life is “one insult after another.” Or that, as another master put it, the spiritual life is really “one mistake after another.”
This is St. Peter’s first insult, to be called Satan. This is his first mistake, to think that he shouldn’t be. This is what he learns finally, to keep making mistakes and to accept that he has, to be flawed and to admit that he is, until in the end when he is crucified, as the legend tells us, he asks in his humility and his self-awareness to be crucified upside down. He doesn’t want to be crucified the way Jesus himself was.
Because now he knows. Faith turns everything upside down.
I think of a movie I saw last week, a movie I really want to recommend, “Buck.” It’s a documentary about the real life horse-whisperer, the real person behind the Robert Redford character. How he grew up with an abusive father and suffered terribly. How he was taken in by a foster family who loved him and supported him. How he learned the ways of ranching and the life of the cowboy and discovered in himself a great empathy with horses and a great ability.
There was such gentleness in this man and humility, completely contrary to all those false images of the manly man and the strong man and the gunslinger, and in fact, this is the whole point of Buck’s work. That the wildness and the biting and the misbehavior of our horses mirror our own violence and possessiveness and will to control. That we’re trying to dominate our horses, whipping them and binding them, instead of listening to them, instead of seeing, honoring, discerning.
It was so moving to watch this grizzled, middle-aged cowboy with the hat and the boots just stand there in the middle of a corral and very gently, very slowly, begin to work with the animals, almost dancing with them, movement for movement, establishing limits but also reassuring and rewarding them. His voice was so soft. He was so calm. So rooted. Again and again, after just a few minutes, without this man even raising his voice, these wild, undisciplined horses gentled, slowed, calmed. It brought tears to my eyes just to see this, and it made think of Jesus. That this must have been what Jesus was like, the way he was with people. This radical gentleness. This radical listening.
This isn’t the spirit of the age, not at all, it’s the spirit of Christ, and what the horse-whisperer is doing, in his own small arena, is radiating out that spirit, giving it away, one horse at a time, one rider at a time. I don’t even know if Buck’s a Christian. I don’t think God was mentioned once in that movie. But I felt his presence. I felt the spirit welling up in him, in me.
The most moving thing of all in the movie was a story Buck told about the first time he met his foster father, when he came to take him away, out of all that violence and abuse. Buck was just a boy of eight or nine, I think, stunned and afraid. And this big man in a cowboy hat pulled up in this big pickup, and he walked out, and he came up to him, and pulled out a pair of new calfskin work gloves. Kneeled down. Handed them to the frightened boy. These are yours, he says. Then: come on, we’ve got fence to build. And that’s what they did the rest of the day. They worked together, building fence, and as the horse-whisperer talked about this now, as a grown man, softly, without exaggeration or sentimentality, you could tell what this meant. This quiet act of kindness. This gift of the gloves, these beautiful gloves, the first the boy had ever had, so beautiful he wouldn’t even use them. He kept them in his pocket that day. He didn’t want to ruin them. He kept pricking his hands on the barb wire. But he knew then. He was OK.
Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it. This is the Christological key. This is what Jesus is trying to teach to Peter and what he never stops trying to teach him. This is what he never stops trying to teach us.
We are the boy, and the Lord is handing us these calfskin gloves. Not to save us from the work, but to call us to it. This hard work, with the barb wire.
And we are the foster father, too, the cowboy, or should be--but this kind of cowboy, this kind of person. Who gives. Who acts. Who knows.