February 25, 2024 - Second Sunday in Lent
First Sunday at Keawala’i

"Dashboard Jesus”

Rev. Gary Percesepe

Mark 8: 31-38

It’s the season of Lent, time to hear stories about Jesus, sing the Lenten songs, pray the Lenten prayers, hear the scriptures read. Everything will seem fine and dandy. Until we pause to ponder what we are really doing here, and then we may need to leave the dance floor and get up to the balcony.

There’s a wonderful book on leadership written by Ron Heifetz & Marty Linsky that uses the evocative metaphor of the dance floor and the balcony.

Being on the dance floor means you’re directly in the middle of things, part of the action. You can see many details flash by, but it’s impossible to see the full picture. To do that, you’ve got to move up to the balcony. From the balcony your view is unobstructed; you can take everything in. Moving to the balcony means taking a step back. Wise leaders make a conscious effort to regularly get off the dance floor and up to the balcony. Jesus was a wise leader. His disciples, who of course are “stand ins” for us in the gospel—well, his disciples at times struggle to understand. They seem pretty clueless about what’s really going on because they’re dancing too fast to see where they’re going.

Listen, Jesus’s disciples are clueless pretty much all the time in Mark’s gospel. I’ve come to trust the bible as a reliable word from God because it’s merciless in describing how feckless, dim witted, and crabby Jesus’ followers are, and any book that would keep that unflattering portrayal of the main characters in the story—well, for me, that’s an honest book. The gospel writers could have redacted these stories to make themselves look better, but they didn’t; they invited the whole world to look at their junk. It’s like that old joke some of my Catholic friends in Italy tell me: any organization that survived the corruption of the Vatican for so many centuries must have something going for it! Madone!

So come up to the balcony with me: C’mon.

The writer of Mark’s gospel hammers away for sixteen urgent chapters telling a story that we naturally resist because it is a crazy story. The first problem Mark faces as a storyteller is this: How do you tell a true story about resurrection from death? We know from bitter experience that dead people stay dead. Jesus is publicly tortured to death by professionals. Once he is certifiably dead, he’s buried and left in the tomb into the third day. First century Jews believed that life departed irrevocably on the third day. Jesus is certifiably dead. And then he rises back to life. Now children may be able to believe that story, and some pious adults who may as well be children, who resemble the Queen in Alice in Wonderland who says, “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But, unlike the Queen of Wonderland, most modern adults regard death as permanent, and therefore the resurrection of Jesus is an enormous problem.

The second major problem in Mark’s story is the way the story ends. Everything in Mark’s story leads us to believe that the disciples and the audience will see Jesus raised from the dead. But in Mark’s account, no one sees Jesus and the women run away from his tomb silent and terrified. The story ends abruptly with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb. For terror and amazement had seized them. And they said nothing. For they were afraid.”

The story slams to a halt. It’s an Apollo 13 moment; “Um, Houston, we have a problem.” More about that later, at Easter.

On three separate occasions in the Gospel of Mark, we find a threefold pattern: 1) Jesus predicts his suffering and death; 2) the disciples misunderstand what Jesus is saying; and 3) Jesus uses their misunderstanding to teach about the true meaning of discipleship. In addition to today’s text, we find the exact same pattern repeated in Mark 9: 30-37 and in chapter 10, 32-45.

Jesus wants his disciples up on the balcony, but the disciples remained glued to the dance floor. Jesus wants them to ponder the question, “Who do you really believe that I am,” which is the ultimate balcony question, the question of his true identity, as the Christ. Peter manages to blurt out the right answer but gives the right answer for the wrong reason. He sees that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, which is a major big deal, but the problem is his view of what a messiah is. That’s a balcony question. Because Peter has a particular conception of messiahship—that is, one who comes from heaven to pound enemies of Jews into submission, a mighty warrior who comes conquering from the clouds, sending those damn Romans packing, ends the military occupation, sits on a throne with, um, Peter and James and John sitting at his left and right hands, while they fight to see who gets the seat on the right or the left, singing “Hold me closer tiny dancer”… well, Peter gets exasperated with Jesus and reprimands Jesus for all this talk about suffering and death, because that is not what Messiahs do, Jesus! Let’s go kick some Roman butt!

Clearly, Peter had something besides the cross on his mind.

It reminds of a story I heard about Catholic peace activist Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest who was a thorn in the side of the Vatican, not to mention the FBI, with his opposition to the Vietnam War landing him in prison repeatedly. Well, a young man once came up to Berrigan, a wannabe activist, who wanted to know how to follow Jesus in this perilous age and what it would cost him, and Dan Berrigan looked at this kid and said to him, “How do you look up on wood?”

Perhaps Peter expected Jesus to be a political ruler who would liberate Palestine from occupation with violent force. Such a vision still dances in the heads of some, as even a cursory reading of the newspapers shows. And before we rise up in righteous condemnation of this view—which we will refer to as “the myth of redemptive violence”—let’s get up to the balcony to ask, “How would I feel if my land was stolen, my daughters raped, my brothers tortured and held for ransom, wouldn’t I welcome a strong man to come in to save me and destroy my enemies?” If the police had their boot on my head for eight minutes while I whimpered in pain and called for my mama, until my life was snuffed out and no one came to save me, or if, as Bishop Tutu observed, the missionaries came to Africa and they had the Bible and we had the land, and then they said 'Let us pray. ' and we closed our eyes, and when we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land--a situation replicated in 1893 in these islands—would we welcome a conquering hero to vanquish our enemies and restore the aina, wouldn’t I be tempted to believe this to be our sacred kuleana? Probing deeper, have you ever wanted to say to Jesus, with Peter, how bizarre to imagine that setting our minds on divine things entails a willing acceptance of a horrific and tortuous death.

And yet… Peter’s expectations of the Christ were wrong. “Nonviolent suffering redeemer led as a sheep to the slaughter” was not on his dance card, neither for Jesus nor himself. It’s easy to criticize Peter, but how many of us come to Jesus with the wrong expectations?

My parents were overjoyed when their, my older brother, Tommy walked down the aisle at Madison Square Garden to accept Jesus into his heart in response to the message of Billy Graham at the famous New York City Crusade, believing Billy’s promise that accepting Jesus would give them joy in their heart, and peace, and the promise of everlasting life, but what they got less than six months later was a nine year old boy mysteriously asphyxiated when the family car got stuck in a snowbank with the motor running, and carbon monoxide seeped into the car, and the son my father thought was asleep was dead. How’s that for peace, love, joy and happiness?

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman’s character sings a song that captures how most folks see Jesus out there on the dance floor. The song of course is called Plastic Jesus, it’s a bit of magical thinking, and it goes like this:

“I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant,
Glows in the dark ’cause it’s iridescent,
Take it with you when you travel far."

Dashboard Jesus is the perfect image of American consumer religion and cheap grace. The god of Consumer Christianity does not inspire awe and wonder because he is nothing more than a commodity to be used for our personal satisfaction and self-achievement. It’s religion of our own making, and it is more about moralism than it is about grace. As Voltaire once quipped, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”

So, what think ye, church? What do you say about Jesus? It’s the season of Lent, the perfect time to ask such questions! Is he your Dashboard Jesus, a plastic ornament in your life, someone you pat on the head or rub on the belly for good luck? Is he the conquering warrior come to bring retribution on the godless? Is he just one amongst a host of good ethical teachers? Or maybe he’s your bro, your co-pilot, your jukebox country hero, the one you joke with over a cold beer, singing “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life?”

Who is Jesus for us today? Let’s not be too hasty to answer the question. There’s a lot of Lent left, and Mark and the lectionary will force us to revisit it. But I stopped by to say this: To answer it, we’ll need to get off the dance floor, let go of Dashboard Jesus and get up to the balcony. Up there, we might find a moment to ponder Daniel Berrigan’s burning question: How do we look up on wood?

The beautiful thing about getting up to the balcony now and then is that once you’ve been up there, you can’t wait to put on your dancing shoes and get back out there on the dance floor except this time you know the name of the dance and whose dance this is, and you discover you are dancing because you’ve been called to the dance by the Lord of the dance, and the dance bears your name and it is calling you.

So what do you say, Keawala’i? Shall we dance?

So be it. Amen.

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