I read this week that the wonderful old Brooklyn steakhouse, Peter Luger’s, has hatched something new in order to contend with the challenge of being a restaurant during COVID.
Now, if you know Peter Luger’s, you’ll get how odd this is.
It’s one of those places where the whole point is to do everything the same way they’ve always done it.
That’s a big part of the appeal.
Well, these are odd times, as we know.
Restaurants are not permitted to operate at full capacity, and that’s not good.
But there is also the reality that a lot of people get the creeps when they eat in an empty restaurant, and apparently, COVID has not changed this, so that’s not good, either.
So this is where someone at Peter Luger’s has had an idea.
Because while you are not permitted to operate at full capacity with live people, it seems that the regulations are silent when it comes to operating with wax people.
(MG: slowly nods head…)
So someone at Peter Luger’s has said, what if we populate half of the restaurant with famous people? Famous wax people.
What if you came to Peter Luger’s and Audrey Hepburn from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was sitting at the next table?
What if you came to Peter Luger’s and Don Draper from “Mad Men” was standing at the bar?
What if being a real person eating a steak at Peter Luger’s was like taking part in the ultimate New York story?
This is what they’re going to do.
So…is that “adjusting” or isn’t it?
I can’t quite tell.
It seems clear that it is choosing to meet a new reality by cultivating a very particular kind of fantasy.
They’re banking on the hope that one way or another, the fantasy will manage to catch on.
In this morning’s Gospel, I wonder if Peter isn’t caught up in a very particular kind of fantasy, himself.
Certainly, he is hoping that the message of Jesus will catch on.
He’s not focused on just trying to survive.
From his perspective, things could not be better.
This project of preaching and healing they’ve been working on is already starting to change the world.
For those with eyes to see, the presence of God in the midst of all of it has been unmistakable.
The endless troubles of a weary world are over now, or soon will be.
He’s seen it.
Isn’t that what the voice they all heard on the top of that mountain meant?
Thanks be to God that he had been given eyes to see…that he got to be a part of it.
It’s Jesus who abruptly interjects with visions of the immediate future that are dark and seem bad for business.
It’s Jesus who is introducing fantasies about doomsday.
From Peter’s perspective, it must have made no sense, and since it didn’t, it’s out of love and loyalty that Peter tries to stop Jesus from going too far down that road.
Because he could see. He could see, even if Jesus apparently couldn’t.
He could see the people starting to look at each other nervously as they listened to Jesus talk this way.
He watched as they began to get agitated and started to disconnect.
It’s not that they were just abruptly turning and going. Any of the regulars would have noticed that.
It’s more that lately, the ones who’d been up front, hanging on Jesus’ every word, glowing after every healing they witnessed, seemed to be hanging more toward the back, with each day more of them leaving…more of them breaking camp sometime overnight and taking off without a word.
With every new gloomy tiding, the people of God were fading away.
Jesus wasn’t telling them about the God they wanted, anymore.
Peter doesn’t quite recognize that is the God he wants, too.
If there had been wax figures available to pump up the numbers, to give the illusion of the same kind of joyful crowds they were all used to, maybe he would have ordered a truck load.
Maybe he would have tried to sustain the challenge of this new reality by cultivating a very particular fantasy, banking on the hope that one way or another, it would manage to catch on.
This is what Peter still doesn’t understand after all this time.
He’s gotten very good at watching Jesus. But he still has a great deal to learn about actually seeking the presence of God.
He cannot imagine a world in which Jesus will not be there for him to watch—literally to watch.
It’s so unthinkable that even when Jesus himself speaks of it, Peter urgently seeks to hush him.
The deeper notion of the God who is present…the call to know the God who dwells with us, abides with us, who loves and cares for us even in the darkness is something he just can’t fathom yet.
What Jesus wants him to understand is that godforsakenness isn’t a thing, not because henceforth, there will not be darkness, but because no matter how dark it may become, God is always there with us.
We see God’s face in the faces of those who stand beside us.
We hold God’s hand in the hands we reach to grasp.
We know God’s healing when, in our own distress, we may not even have the strength to believe just then, but we find ourselves sustained by the faith and love of those who come alongside us, willing to sit with us patiently in the darkness.
That’s not the God that Peter thinks he wants.
That’s not the God who promises to smite our every enemy and bless our every effort.
But it’s the God we know in Jesus Christ.
That’s the God we’ve seen with particular clarity over the last 50 weeks.
Not all Christians would say so.
You may have seen Christians claiming to rebuke the virus like a demon and to banish it.
Some others have said that it represents God’s decision to withdraw Divine protection over the world because of a particular short list of sins.
The temptation to meet some new reality by cultivating a very particular kind of fantasy is never far away from any of us.
We would do well to remember that as we seek to speak of God.
For me, what has abided through this whole everything has not been some shallow version of God’s decrees and our unworthiness, or some fantasy that God, properly worshipped, will take any danger away as a reward for those with brains enough to do as we’re told.
What has abided has been a sense of the presence of God, even in our challenges.
I’ve seen it in the love of this community for one another.
I’ve seen it in the way we have found the strength and purpose to push through each day as best we can.
I’ve seen it, not because life is easy for those who believe…but because life can be so hard, and yet we get on with it.
We love children who are so angry and withdrawn.
We love spouses who are hard to live with all day, every day, which is never what we signed up for.
We love people who still say half of what they have to say while their Zoom is still on mute.
We find a way to manage boredom and solitude and the sense of being at loose ends.
We do our jobs.
We do all of it. However we can.
And God bless us for it. I’m certain God does.
I’ve seen how God has been actively at work doing new things—offering new comfort, newinsight, new and unexpected gestures that help us to heal even in the midst of our distress.
God is doing this despite and sometimes even through all of this, not because God wishes it on us, but because God is with us, no matter what happens.
Even this long into it, we know that some days go better than others. Some of the adjustments we make are easier or more durable than others.
We have to look for God anew each day and learn to bless the partial daily victories of a God whose providence unfolds more gradually than we might be inclined to wish, but which proves to endure far longer than we could ever dream.
Peter could not recognize this God, even when this God literally stood before him and spoke about these very things.
But faith would not have us be so blinded, anymore.
God stands with and among us.
God is ready to join us in any new reality that the world might devise.
And God is urging us to see the Divine Presence now and in whatever comes next, because the world may change, but the love and presence of God simply never will.
Don’t be a wax figure, frozen in a vision of the past, Jesus says.
Be a child of God, attentive to what comes, alive to what remains, and hopeful in what will be.
Flesh and blood and Spirit – unable to be frozen, and ever alive to the God in whom we live and move, and have our Being.