There is a theme running through all our readings today, and it could be summed up in the three words, “what is, is”. They are all about facing reality, and our reluctance to do so. The prophet Jeremiah has been called to warn his people of the advancing armies of the Babylonians, who will eventually destroy Jerusalem, but no one wants to hear his message, and he’s been shunned. St Peter, in the Gospel reading, is horrified when Jesus says that he will suffer and be killed. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Peter just can’t imagine how this could be. He thinks that Jesus has just got it wrong.
The passage we heard from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the Psalm have also got something to say about dealing with what is – the things that turn out be non-negotiables – but I’ll come back to them later.
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, said the poet T.S. Eliot, and I think he was right. If it all seems too much, or too difficult, we just decide not to see what is there in front of us. The report this week exposing child abuse in Rotherham is a case in point. A lot of people seem to have known it was going on, and yet somehow they were able to put it out of their minds, to pretend it wasn’t really happening, or wasn’t really so bad. The only people who couldn’t discount it like that were the children who were being abused – everyone else’s reluctance to acknowledge it left them carrying the burden of that reality on their own.
We are all capable of refusing to acknowledge the truth of the world around us, though. A relationship that could have been repaired fails because we’d rather pretend everything was fine. A health problem becomes serious because we’d rather not think about it. People self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or comfort-eating in an attempt to blot out what they’d rather not see or say, but only end up making it worse.
In the science fiction film, The Matrix, the hero, Neo, gradually comes to realise that what he thinks is reality – a comfortable, normal existence - is actually a sort of communal dream. Everything seems normal, but in fact the human race has been enslaved. People are being kept dormant in a sort of virtual reality – the Matrix of the title – while the energy their bodies produce is harvested to fuel the machines that have taken over. The crucial moment in the film comes when all this is revealed to Neo by someone who turns out to be a resistance leader. “The Matrix is everywhere,” he says. “It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
And then Neo is offered a choice. He can take one of two pills. The blue pill will send him back into the dream world, where he will forget all he has learned and be happy, but enslaved again. The red pill will mean that the dream vanishes and he’ll have to face reality, and fight against the system that has enslaved him.
Which will he choose?
Which would you choose?
It’s a powerful moment because, although this is science fiction, the choice between illusion and reality – the blue pill and the red pill - is one which we all have to make throughout our lives. Will we accept that “what is, is” and deal with it, or do we prefer to pretend that everything is fine and look away from anything that disturbs us. Most of us, at least some of the time will choose not to see what we don’t want to, even though in the end reality will almost certainly catch up with us.
Why do we act like this? For all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes we are afraid we’ll be overwhelmed and won’t be able to cope if we acknowledge that all is not well. We don’t know what to do about that broken relationship, and we’re afraid that if we say something it will all go pear-shaped and then what? Or that situation at work which needs to be dealt with – but what if we find we’ve put our own job on the line by doing so? It’s too much of a risk. We worry that we’ll be left on our own, out in the cold.
Sometimes we struggle to acknowledge a problem because it means admitting that we aren’t the person we’d like to think we were. We’ve always thought of ourselves as capable, able to deal with life, successful – how can we be feeling depressed or anxious? How can we be failing?
And some things challenge our view of others, our view of God, our world-view. We have a creeping suspicion that some opinion we’ve held all our lives just might be wrong, but we can’t acknowledge our doubts. If we do, the whole edifice might come crashing down around us.
That is what is happening to the people of Israel when they hear Jeremiah’s doom-laden words. They’ve always assumed that because they were God’s chosen people, they would be protected from real disaster. Plagues and famines and wars might threaten them, but when push came to shove, God would always rush to the rescue at the last moment, because if his chosen people went under, what would that say about him?
It puts me in mind of a childhood friend of mine. Those of us over a certain age might remember the Tufty club, a road safety initiative that was big in the 1960s, headed up by a squirrel called Tufty. My friend , when a child, was utterly convinced that because she belonged to the Tufty club, she could never be run over. It was a dangerous delusion…though I have to say she never actually was run over.
Jeremiah’s compatriots were operating under the same sort of delusion. They were in the “God of Israel club”. They were convinced they were invincible. It was only when the Babylonians fell on Jerusalem and razed it to the ground, that they are confronted by the truth they couldn’t bear to see.
Peter seems to have felt the same way about Jesus. He’s the Messiah. He can’t die. God wouldn’t allow that to happen to his chosen one. Surely not…
Both Peter and the people of Israel eventually discover that they are wrong, but the good news is that they also discover that reality, however painful, is actually the gateway to a new life they couldn’t have imagined.
It is while the Israelites are in exile in Babylon, that they start to think more seriously about their faith, to gather their scriptures together, to figure out what really matters to them. They discover that God has not deserted them, despite what feels to them like disgrace. He is with them in this time of trouble, and eventually brings them home again.
Peter resists the idea that Jesus will die right up to the moment when he is arrested and put on trial. When that happens his whole world seems to crumble. He denies even knowing Jesus, let alone following him. But though he seems to have given up on Jesus, Jesus has not given up on him. After the resurrection, far from being angry with Peter, Jesus makes him the leader of the new movement that will follow his way. Who better than Peter, the one who knows for himself that the most abject failure, the most awful reality, can lead to the most glorious new beginning? What is, is, and whatever it is, God is at work in it, to be found in the worst of troubles once our eyes are open to see him.
Of course it would be very much better if we didn’t have to wait for disaster to fall before we were able to face reality, and that brings me to the other two readings we heard today. St Paul writes to the church in Rome, a church which is trying to follow the way of Christ in a very hostile environment. Their reality is very bleak. Many will face death. We could understand them not wanting to think about it, not wanting to see it, wanting to run away, to distract themselves in any way they could. But Paul’s advice to them is quite the opposite. Instead of running away, they need to put down roots, be where they are – persevering in prayer , being patient in suffering . Instead of closing their eyes, they need to open them, to see clearly how in all the small things they do they can build each other up, establish their community, so that they have the resources and strength to be ready for whatever tests might come. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another. Do not be haughty. Don’t run away from evil, or close your eyes to it, or repay it with more evil . Instead, overcome evil with good.
The Psalmist says “I have lived with integrity” and that is what Paul is telling these Roman Christians to do. Integrity doesn’t just mean telling the truth, but living truthfully, seeing what is there and dealing with it, day by day, every day. When they do that – yes - they will have to acknowledge the pain around them and in them, but they will also be able to see the good things that surround them too, the love of one another and the love of God.
Today’s readings aren’t comfortable ones. In a sense they are like that pill that strips away the illusions. But they are good news for us as we look at our own lives and acknowledge that “what is, is” because they remind us that whatever that “is,” is, whatever our reality contains, God is too, and he is the ultimate reality which no amount of evil can defeat.