Petting the Alley Cat

I received the latest copy of The New Yorker on Thursday, and, as I’ve read it over the last few days, I’ve been struck by the various articles. They seemed to have a distinct theme to them. There is a brief blurb about steroids in baseball, and a discussion of the growing list of athletes who are being revealed as users of performance enhancing drugs. There is a long story about Robert Allen Stanford, the billionaire who lives in St. Croix and took a page from Bernie Madoff’s book. Nothing major, just eight billion dollars unaccounted for, amidst a life of jets and boats in the Caribbean. That essay is followed immediately by an essay about Iceland, the collapse of its three major banks, and the greed of a handful of oligarchs that brought about the destruction of a too small, albeit first-world financial system. The next essay is rather a sad one, about David Foster Wallace, a young brilliant novelist, who committed suicide recently. His novels are technical and wordy creations, but the goal of his writing, the theme and center of his novels, is to demonstrate to his readers and maybe to himself the importance of a fulfilled, meaningful life, despite the fact that modern and post-modern thought has seemed to close off the reality of the supernatural and numinous for so many people.

However diverse these topics are, they are not without connections. It cannot be incidental that the discussion which is going on in our culture and society today has as its major theme disappointment.Disappointment with the cult of hero worship which surrounds professional athletics, with the narcissistic excesses of a few greedy people which have caused many deep economic harm and emotional distress, and disappointment with the attempt to live some sort of fulfilled life without any sort of religious or cultural connections, in the midst of a culture which is jaded, cynical, fickle and diffuse. It cannot be incidental because all those stories rooted in disappointment, all those moments of failure, shock and sadness surround what we as a culture and a society value highly: the grace and athleticism of the professional athlete, the American dream of wealth through hard work, the pipedream of a financial system which makes easy money for its people, and the dreamy thoughtful youth who tries to write about a life worth living, all evidence to the contrary. These are the stories that our culture has come to worship. And despite the fact that we know the Madoffs and Stanfords are a dime a dozen, or at least a few billion dollars every other decade or so, and that professional athletes perennially disappoint, and that economies go up and come down, yet still we are fascinated by these disappointments because they are concerned with what is deeply believe, the myths that lie at the heart of our culture. These myths are about what we as a people, what we as a culture and society, value, praise, adore and organize our lives around. These myths are about what we worship.

We are human, and our purpose, our goal; that for which we were created and built is to worship. And we will worship the things of earth or the things of heaven. There is nothing else to worship. We will worship athletes, or money, or ideas, or science, or beauty, or social change, or the living and true God, but worship we will.

The whole message and story of Lent, what all the lectionary readings point to is our failure to worship the true and living God. Sometimes it is couched as the idolatry of the Golden Calf, but it might as well be the idolatries of our own day. The worship of billions of dollars, of hundreds of RBIs and yards rushed, of stocks and bonds, or the fulfilled life according to the faith of the modern intellectual bourgeois. We will worship whatever it is that comes to hand.

Which is precisely the problem that Simon Peter gets into in the Gospel this morning. We don’t quite know what he is worshipping in Jesus, but whatever it is, he is wrong. Perhaps he thinks that Jesus is the great political messiah, come to solve all problems with his teachings and savvy. We certainly wouldn’t ever treat a politician like a messiah, would we? Perhaps he thinks that life itself is a good above all else, and that Jesus really needs to keep teaching and preaching long into his dotage. Perhaps Peter just doesn’t like all that negative energy and morbidity that Jesus is putting out by talking about crucifixion and death.

Whatever motivates Peter, he tries to remonstrate with Jesus, and Jesus slams the door on him pretty hard, because his kingdom is not of this world, and the only way forward, is not to preserve your life but to sacrifice it, to give it up for the life of the world and the lives of others.

Either we will lose our life, or we will lose our life. Those are the choices that Jesus lays out to his disciples and to us. That is the choice that is set before us today, and every day. Either we will lose our life in the pursuit of, in the worship of the wrong things: money, power, position, etc. Or we will lose it by entering into the life of faith, into the life of relationship with the one and true God. And lest you think that can’t be costly, think of the martyrs and the saints; or better yet, think of all those who thought, “I’ll just have a social relationship with God,” and ended up at the world’s end, or facing the angry mob, or heading to the showers in Auschwitz.

Anne Lamott is a fascinating and rather raw writer, and in one essay about coming to faith, she describes God, not so much as the hound of heaven, but as the alley cat of heaven. You feed him a couple of times, and pet him a little, and before you know it he is sleeping on your bed and running the household, and that is when you realize that you are in deep, deep trouble. She uses a rather more descriptive four letter word to describe the trouble, which I think that I won’t use in this setting, but the point is that you don’t start off thinking that you are going to lose your life in the divine life of God. Just like you don’t start of thinking that you are going to steal billions of dollars, or make thousands of people jobless.

But what you worship has everything to do with what you will become. If you worship money, you will become greedy. If you worship food you will become a glutton. Sex, a lecher, and so on. If you worship God, you will lose your life. For our God is a jealous God, a consuming fire and the cost of worship is our lives.

It will start small, this life of losing life in God. You will come to Sunday mass, and enjoy the liturgy and the music. And then you might even start to listen to the preaching, and before long you might think about serving soup to the homeless, or giving of your money and your gifts to support the ministry of the parish, or spending time in prayer or on retreat. That is where the real danger is. Because if the poor are around us and we are called to care for them, if God begins to become part of our financial lives, or part of the time that we spend during the week, if God begins to demand our time, our resources and our worship, then our lives and our resources are no longer our own, to worship as we see fit, but owed, constantly, perpetually to those around us.

“What,” the Gospel asks rhetorically, “will it profit those who desperately hold onto their life to gain the whole world?” Stanford may go to jail, A-Rod will have a tarnished reputation, the group of super wealthy oligarchs in Iceland will have to tighten their belts. It will profit them nothing, of course. A few years of very comfortable living. Fifteen minutes of fame or infamy. A blip on the radar of history, a footnote, then nothing.

Pet the alley cat of heaven, then if you dare. Feed him, if you must. Watch out though, for that is a dangerous road to go down, and you might lose your life. But you will lose it anyways. It was not long ago that Ash Wednesday came, with its message that there is nothing we can do to escape that final lot in life: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We are all going to lose our lives. No one here gets out alive. The only question is how: enslaved to the things of earth or pouring out your life like a gift to those around you, lost in the joy and sacrifice of the Divine life. That is the choice that is before us today. And try not to listen too closely, I think I hear a scratching at the door.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

8 March 2009

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 10, 2009 .