Monday, August 25, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: Who do people say that we are?

Welcome to the scenic resort of Caesarea Philippi. In our guided Gospel tour of the Holy Land, we have now arrived at the northernmost point in our journey with Jesus. It's literally a turning point in the Gospel. From here he will turn south and head for Jerusalem. But at this hinge moment he talks about his identity. "Who do people say that I am?" "Who do YOU say that I am?"

Peter makes his famous confession: "You are the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God." Gold star to Peter: he has correctly identified Jesus as the one the Jews have long awaited, the one anointed by God to lead and liberate God's people. But what is Peter's understanding of the Jewish Messiah? Do you think he expects the Messiah to be arrested, tortured and killed?

I can imagine the disciples shaking their heads in bewilderment after Jesus first praises and rewards Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, and then immediately tells them all to keep their mouths shut. Surely their job is to recruit troops for the cause, to start building the Messianic army for the great battle that lies ahead?

There is certainly a struggle ahead of them in Jerusalem; but Jesus has a very different kind of struggle in mind. The verses that follow this passage (stay tuned for next week) have Jesus telling the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed, and then raised on the third day. This is not the kind of Messiah they want to hear about.

Jesus isn't going to be the Messiah they expect. Jesus will be arrested and killed, and the disciples will descend into fear and doubt; they will run away and their hearts will be broken when Jesus doesn't make everything OK. Their leader is going to disappoint his followers, as leaders always, sooner or later, do.

Effective leaders don't fulfill expectations: they lead. This week I heard commentators criticizing President Obama for not behaving sufficiently like a black President, in the face of the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. I wonder if perhaps he shouldn't behave like a black president but like a president. That may be a source of disappointment to some of his most ardent supporters, but it may also be the most faithful thing the President can do right now, in the midst of racial tension and mutual distrust.

Jesus's two questions to his disciples have meaning for us in our individual spiritual journeys. The life of faith leads us from Jesus' first question to his second. As beginner Christians we learn who others say Jesus is: what does Scripture say? What does the church tradition say? What do my elders in the faith say? We have to learn those assessments before we can move on to answering the second question: Who do YOU say that I am?

And then, as we ponder that second question, we must beware lest we confine Jesus to our own small ideas of leadership. What are our expectations of the messiah? Is our vision large enough to allow Jesus to be the Messiah whom God called him to be? Or are we blinkered as the disciples were blinkered, by culture and history, by our own limited experience and imagination, by the spiritual and emotional wounds that contribute to the construction of our expectations? And, further, how do those same wounds prevent us from growing fully into our own God-given identity as pilgrims on the Way, as courageous people of faith, as reconcilers and peace-makers?

And, to turn the question around, as each of us grows in faith, who will people say that you are? What does your life say about you? How will you embrace your identity as a beloved and free child of God? How will you discern God's will for you and offer the spiritual gifts within you? How will you grow beyond the wounds and expand your vision for your own one, unique and wonderful life?

The choice of today's Hebrew Scripture invites us to see Moses as a forerunner of Jesus. The story of Moses in the bullrushes is one that I loved to hear when I was small, but I think the people who read the story to me then soft-pedalled the horrific circumstances that led him to be in the bullrushes.

The Exodus story holds disturbing parallels to what is happening today in the Middle East to people of faith. Pharaoh embarked on a program of genocide, seeking to wipe out the Jewish people by having the midwives kill the baby boys as they were born. Today we are seeing the Christian community in Iraq being exterminated by the extreme Islamic group ISIS. 150,000 people have run for their lives after being given a choice of conversion to Islam, payment of a crushing tax, or execution. In fact, many people have already been killed, including children, for the crime of being Christian. It's not too far-fetched to imagine a desperate Iraqi Yazidi woman seeking a second chance for her baby by fostering him with a friendly Muslim neighbor. Who would such a baby grow up to be? Who might people say that he is? Was Moses Egyptian or Israelite? He was a Hebrew child, supposed to be killed at birth, rescued from the waters of death by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as her son in the very heart of the oppressive regime. So, who was he? By the time he reached adulthood he must have been so confused. He straddled the worlds of oppressor and oppressed.

That mixed identity is a crucial part of the story, and it's also the plot of both the Disney movie, "Prince of Egypt", and the upcoming live-action movie "Exodus: Gods and Kings", to be released (of course) on Christmas Day. Ironically, there has been controversy over the casting of the movie, because white actors were cast to play non-white characters. The confusion of identities made some critics deeply uncomfortable, and yet it is intrinsic to the drama. "Who do people say that I am?" Moses was part of two cultures, two peoples: part Jew, part Egyptian. And, as so often in the story of God's people, that mingling of identities turned out to be spiritually powerful. It's possible that Moses would not have been able to lead his people out of bondage if he hadn't been Egyptianized. But at the turning point, at the point when he was condemned by both communities, he had to choose who he was, just as Jesus had to choose at his turning point.

Jesus, like Moses, grew up with two identities: he was at one and the same time the humble son of a Jewish carpenter and the transcendent son of God. Is Jesus perhaps having an identity crisis in this moment of the Gospel? Is this why he feels the need to ask his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Immediately after this episode, he turns his face to Jerusalem and goes to meet his fate. In this moment he accepts who he is called to be: the Messiah, God's chosen one, called and sent to save God's people, through his sacrificial offering of his own life.

While we are thinking about identity, what about the church? Who do people say that we are? What is the church's identity in today's world? We are long past the days when the church was automatically deferred to as the center of moral authority in our culture, the place to be seen if you wanted to get on in the world. The institution's clay feet have been too much on display for that image to have survived the social revolutions of the late 20th century. This is not the church of our parents and grandparents. The boomer generation sees the church as a service-provider, rather than a mystical communion. We (boomers) want to support specific ministries and causes: we'll give for the organ or the Christmas flowers, but not so willingly for the general fund, because we want to see the results of our giving. The millennial generation is thoroughly disillusioned with the church, which they see primarily as a source of bigotry and narrow-mindedness. They want to see activities of service, ministries that make a difference in the world, that they can join in on, offering their diversity of gifts for the greater good. When the church asks, "Who do people say that I am?", the unwelcome answer may be, "You are irrelevant to my life; you are not what I am looking for." It's our job, as the church, to make sure that the answer is instead, "You are the healing, loving, reconciling presence of God in the world; you are the people leading the effort to transform the world for good." And even in the places of the world's greatest pain, we can see that happening.

Today Christians in Iraq and Syria and Palestine are being driven from their homes, children are being slaughtered and families destroyed because of their faith. Today young black men in our own country are in daily danger of being shot by the very people who are sworn to protect them. Their devastated families cry out for justice: who will lead us out of this wilderness of violence and fear into the promised land of freedom and equal opportunity for all God's children? The Jews of Jesus' day felt similarly desperate under Roman occupation. They longed for the Messiah to come and overturn the Empire. They were expecting one kind of Messiah. God sent them a quite different kind. Not a warrior, but a servant. Not a smiter, but a reconciler. Not a lion, but a lamb, who gave his body as a sacrifice. And the church is the body of Christ, placed on earth to be his presence in the midst of war, injustice, and desperation.

How does the church live out its identity in all this?

In the developing world the church is often the most stable institution and the only effective provider of educational and medical programs, as it is in South Sudan.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1980's, the Dean of Belfast Cathedral, Sammy Crooks, spent Christmas week every year seated outside the cathedral's main doors in the relentless rain, wrapped in his black clerical cloak, collecting donations to send children from the Roman Catholic and Protestant halves of the community, two deeply divided halves, to summer camp together. What might people have said about the Church of Ireland at that time?

In the troubled, divided community of Ferguson, the churches may be the best hope for reconciliation, the only place where people can come together and work through their outrage at injustice in peaceful ways; and, indeed, the clergy and churches, including our friends in the diocese of Missouri, are working actively to provide such a setting. The rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church is out on the streets, offering comfort and solidarity to Ferguson's people. The diocesan missioner, Mike Angel, who is well known to this cathedral community, is attending ecumenical meetings and working with the bishop and the Dean, my friend Mike Kinman, to offer a reconciling influence.

And what about St. Paul's? What can we offer? We can offer a place to lament and grieve the brokenness of our world. We can offer hospitality to those who feel shut out of the conversation. We can offer persistent and passionate prayer, lifting up our pain to the God who can transform all things and all people. We can present ourselves, in the words of our patron saint, as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. If we do all this, who will people say that we are? My hope is that people will see us, as imperfect as we are, as the body of Christ, and will say that we are the local manifestation of God's healing, loving, reconciling power.

And so we pray, in the words of today's Collect, Grant O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name. In Jesus' name, Amen.

August 24, 2014 
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges 

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