Of take-out and tattoos.
22nd Sunday A 9/3/17 Jer20;Rom 1;Mt 16:21-27Epiphany 4pm Saturdayand 7:30pm JMayzik SJ
I was in a restaurant the other day, waiting to pick up an order for some dinner, and I tried to start up a conversation with the waiter. He reluctantly responded to my question about working in the restaurant. He was young—a year out of college---and he told me that he had moved to New York from Ohio to become an actor. He told me that his great dream was to act in feature films. I mentioned to him that I was a filmmaker, and that I had worked on all kinds of films. He suddenly was very interested in me, and wanted to know more about getting into the business.
But I sensed it really wasn’t the acting that he loved, it was something else. “I just love the red carpet thing, you know,” he said. “My fantasy is to be walking around New York and people recognizing you, wanting your autograph and everything, I sooo want that,” he said. And I realized how young he was, and how little he really knew—or cared—about acting. I watched his eyes light up when he was talking about celebrity, you could see this great dream of being famous and rich and loved, with no clue about how much of a struggle the craft is, or how much art is really involved, and how much sacrifice it takes. “You think you could hook me up?,” he asked in all naiveté, like I could just make him an instant Netflix star or something, and the desire was so sincere and the reality so different, I tried gently to both encourage him and bring him down to earth.
“I just read an article about Robert Pattinson,” I said. Robert Pattison is the dreamboat the star of all the Twilight movies. “He can’t go anywhere without being hounded by his crazy fans,” I said. “I’d love it,” my young friend said, and handed me a bag with me dinner. “So, you think you could hook me up?,” he said again, half jokingly. I told him to be sure to take some acting classes, and wished him luck.
I’ve had lots of experience with real actors, and I deeply admire their dedication to their art, especially when it brings them little fame. Real actors, like all artists, use their gifts to communicate the truth that they see in the world, and they do it because they can’t not do it. It’s in their blood, and even if the audience is small, and the pay is nonexistent, they will act whenever and wherever they can.
I walked out of the restaurant with my dinner in hand, and said a little prayer for my young waiter. I suspect that his road will be a bit more rocky than he realizes, especially if he focuses on the superficial ‘benefits’.
I waited at the corner for the light to change, and I couldn’t help but notice the tattoos on the arms and next of the guy next to me. I didn’t want to stare, but it was almost wall-to-wall ink on his exposed skin, and the designs were very intricate and well done.
The light changed and he moved on, but I recalled a friend’s tattoo that had intrigued me a few years ago. I hadn’t seen in a long time, but the first thing I noticed when we reconnected was this tattoo on his arm. It was an elaborate crown, sort of hanging on a slant over a “t”, like you throw a hat on a hook. He was never a very religious guy—actually he was quite the opposite—and so when I saw the tattoo it didn’t cross my mind that the “t” was really a cross. But then as I was talking to him, it suddenly dawned on me that it was a crown and a cross. Of course I asked him about it, and learned of the drug addiction that he had suffered, and all kinds of horrors in his life that came about because of the addiction. He had found God in the process, and Jesus in particular, and the tattoo was a way for him to mark himself as saved from his addiction.
“It was unbelievably hard,” he told me. “But..” he paused, “you know, no cross, no crown.” Ohhhhh, I thought to myself, I’m an idiot for not reading that in his tattoo. No cross, no crown. Of course.
Which brings us to the Gospel. You know, when Jesus was around, people thought the Messiah would come and bring instant glory to Israel--military success, wealth and prosperity. Even the disciples who saw Jesus as the Messiah shared this belief.
It’s an interesting Gospel. You know last week we heard how Jesus renamed Simon Bar Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah) Rocky, which is what the name Peter means. Andthen he designated Peter as the foundational Rock on which he would build his Church. And one week later we get this Gospel and Rocky suddenly gets another name: Satan and Blockade.
When Peter heard Jesus predict his own torture and shameful murder on a cross, he figured that Jesus must have made a mistake: 'God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you”. Peter was expecting all crown, no cross. Peter was expecting that Jesus would get hooked up, just like that, red carpet, instant celebrity, people wanting his autograph, famous and rich and loved. In all his naivite, Peter didn’t get it. He didn’t get the sacrifice and the suffering, he didn’t get the humiliation and the selflessness. Peter, Jesus says, not so gently: You are my enemy, my Darth Vader, my Voldemort, my Mephistopheles, my Iago, my Cersei Lannister. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
You know the gospel of Christ is a coin with two sides: the cross and the crown. If we try to embrace one side, the glorious side, and reject the other, the suffering side, we falsify the gospel. The same Jesus who said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, I will give you rest” also said, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.
Do we come to Jesus then to be freed from our burdens or do we come to Jesus to take on the cross? Well, if we really believe that he is the One, we come to Jesus to do both: to be freed from our meaningless and futile desires and, in its place, to open our arms and take on the cross---letting go of our selves. Which doesn’t necessarily have a red carpet to it, unless it is the bloody red of our self-giving lives.
On my way home with my dinner, I passed a place on 21st Street called Inscape. I guess it’s a meditation center of some kind. I looked in the window. There were people standing in a circle with their arms wide open. They had their eyes closed, and it appeared that they were standing there in silence. Arms wide open, like Jesus on the Cross. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to have a greater appreciation for the cross, and for that kind of open embrace of the life we are given. When you open your arms to someone, or to the world, you are incredibly vulnerable. It makes you defenseless, exposed, and liable to injury of the heart and the body, but it also enables you to embrace and receive love.
That arms-open stance is the mark of a Christian. Those of us who attempt to follow Christ must walk amidst our brothers and sisters just like that, suffering and torture-be-damned. To accept the broken among us, the forgotten, the abandoned, the rejected and condemned—to welcome them with our open arms and open hearts. And taking on the cross means embracing our sister or brother who wounded us years ago, the wife or husband who has withdrawn their love, the parent or child who is a burden and a trial, the friend and neighbor and stranger who selfishly demands more and more, the mean-spirited bully who mocks you for your weakness. It also means embracing those who are different than we are, whether it be racially, or sexually, or politically, or nationally. It means opening our arms to the whole world in all of its sinfulness, just as Jesus did all his life, right to the very moment his breath gave out on the wood to which he was nailed.
Being a Christian is no feel-good, easy-peasy glory-filled picnic. There is most probably no red carpet. It might mean a lot of lonely times, and no time under the spotlights. It is probably the hardest way of life to aspire to, and there are no guarantees that it will end happily, at least in this lifetime. But, you know, no cross…no ultimate crown, folks.
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
I hope and I pray that my young actor-friend learns the lesson of those words.