This week, I was preparing – and struggling – to write a sermon on a passage from the gospel of Mark. It encapsulates one of my favorite episodes between Jesus and Peter, one I’ve used many times before to illustrate just how hit or miss Peter’s discipleship can be, and therefore how relatable he is.
In one moment, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
And it is Peter, only Peter, who correctly answers him: the Messiah.
Not John the Baptist, not Elijah, not any one of the other prophets, but the Son of Man, the long-awaited redeemer from God.
But Peter doesn’t have long to ride high on his triumph, because only a little further down the page, we read about Jesus teaching of his upcoming suffering and death. Peter immediately takes Jesus aside and starts to rebuke him – to criticize or scold him. And it is that reaction which earns Peter some very harsh words from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”
One moment, he’s a star student, and the next he’s….Satan?
I have always read this passage as one full of anger and frustration. Peter gets mad at Jesus for what he says about suffering and dying; and he says so – and then Jesus gets mad at Peter and yells at him.
But this week, I stalled out partway through writing a sermon based on that message, and I had to phone in a pastor friend for help. She encouraged me to put down my draft, get a cup of coffee, snuggle up with my dog, and reread the book of Mark. And do it, she said, with the assumption that Jesus is always speaking kindly. See how that changes things.
Well, it changed my reading of the text dramatically, which changed my interpretation, which changed my sermon.
But more importantly, it reminded me of the thing that I’m struggling with the most these days, as we approach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 coming to our area and upending our world.
The lack of kindness.
It’s been there throughout, as we’ve been doling out or receiving lots of judgment over how we react to the virus, over the precautions we do or don’t take, the trips we do or don’t make…and on and on and on. And it seems like things are reaching a fever pitch with the introduction of vaccines. Now, that judgment circles around who is getting the shot, and who isn’t – yet. Around who has access and who can’t find an appointment. Who is sitting by the phone or on the computer trying to get in, and who isn’t sure they will get a shot when it’s their turn.
I’ve heard so many stories and conversations and reports about people who were shamed for getting the vaccine when they did, or who won’t tell others for fear of recrimination. About people whose jobs make them eligible, or whose family situations makes them prioritized, but still toss and turn over whether they should wait to get a shot.
And the truth is that there are many problems with the way vaccines are getting rolled out; places where the most vulnerable can’t get a shot and those in positions of power are wrongfully stepping ahead to get theirs. There are questions to be asked and changes to be made. That’s less of what I am concerned about. What troubles me much more is the way that we are treating each other in the midst of this. And I write as someone equally guilty; someone who was scheduled to get a shot last week, and thought her appointment got canceled, and then spent a long, angry and tearful evening thinking how unfair it was that other people – who could always work from home, who didn’t have members to visit in the hospital – got theirs weeks ago.
I’m just as prey to these feelings as anyone. But I’m not proud of them, and I’m trying not to lean into them.
I’m trying instead to reread the story of my life right now, and the story of COVID-19 and vaccinations with the assumption that so many of these ordinary people, friends and neighbors and colleagues of mine, are just trying to do their best. They’re just running scared, like me, and trying to get themselves and their loved ones protected.
I’m rereading with the assumption that people are basically kind.
And, like rereading Mark with those lenses in place, it is changing my understanding. Changing my feelings. Changing my interpretation. It is changing how I interact with people, and feel about them. It is letting me breathe again.
I might be wrong in my assumption, but I think I’m willing to take that risk. After all, in my case, the risk is that I have a little more love, a little more acceptance, and a little more grace than maybe someone deserves – and isn’t that a lot like Jesus, anyway?
Isn’t that what we all need?