Pentecost XVI – Proper 19 Launching Sunday
Here’s Looking into YOU Kid
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
When I was young, eight years old, I learned this song in Vacation Bible School… in Burmese…. I can still sing it today…
“Jesus loves me” (sung in Burmese)
When I think back to this early memory of Jesus in my life I go to the summer before fourth grade, to a Vacation Bible School experience. That summer we studied the people and culture of Burma, a country that is over 7,000 miles from Sacramento, nearly a third of the way around the world. We learned about the Kayan people of Burma whose women traditionally adorned themselves with brass neck coils. Girls would start wearing little bands at a young age, adding height to the brass neck structure over time, giving the women appearance of having elongated, and sometimes very elongated, necks. These metal bands did not really stretch the neck, they actually pushed down the wearer’s collar bones and rib cages, forever altering their skeletal structure. Today it is a controversial practice. Some Kayan women continue it as a statement of traditional beauty, and some as means of attracting tourist dollars. Most have abandoned the practice. Anyway, the images of this far away people… seemingly very different from my own family, friends and neighbors… were intriguing, and they stuck. What stuck more was learning to sing the song “Jesus Loves Me” in Burmese. Though I knew the song in English, singing it in a mysterious foreign language got inside of me and took residence. I knew that Jesus was my friend, one who walked with me all of the time, even when I did not fully understand.
When you think of Jesus, what words come to mind?…
teacher rabbi, healer miracle worker Messiah Prince of Peace King of Kings
Light of the World The Way Living Bread Living Water Savior Redeemer Son of God Child of Mary
The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End the Cosmic Christ
the challenger the revolutionary the liberator friend of the poor and outcast justice maker
The Unchangeable One The Wisdom of God The Word of Life
In preparing for this sermon I found a website that actually lists 200 names for Jesus Christ:
What words do you use to describe who Jesus is for you?
My walk with Jesus, the one who I knew as a friend, has continued through my life As I grew older in years… and learning …and understanding, Jesus became for me much more that a loving friend and companion. In seminary the study of who Jesus was, and is, got intense. On the first day of our History of Christianity class the professor asked us: “Who was the Jesus of history?” My first answer was, “he was a revolutionary”… he challenged the status quo and the earthly “powers that be”….. he showed us another way. The professor’s response was “are you sure?” The question was now turned back on me… and it has stayed with me. Whenever I get too comfortable with any one answer about Jesus, the question “Are you sure?” pops-up in my mind…. it challenges me not to rest in my own safe and comfortable ideas of faith… “are you sure?” has kept the questions alive and churning… in a good way…
In seminary it is quite common for students to have a major crisis and reckoning of faith. I would not describe mine as being as intense as it was for some of my classmates. My walk with the Jesus, who I had come to know so many years earlier, was never challenged to the point of a melt-down. Something else did happen with me however…
Many of you know that I started seminary as a Unitarian Universalist, a UU who knew Jesus. This was difficult for me at times as I was in an environment, among my peers, in which Jesus and the Christian tradition were often dismissed because of the church’s often bloody history and adherence to doctrines that seemed to have less to do with the teachings of Jesus… and more to do with a flawed institution of human making. I did not have a problem with walking with Jesus. In seminary I wanted to learn… and to reconcile my personal experience of Jesus with the ways in which God is calling to us in our times in a world textured with a multitude of different cultures and traditions and varieties of understandings of “The Holy.” In my studies I relished engaging with theological ideas from a variety of authors and perspectives. My problem was not so much ideas concerning Jesus the Christ, but issues about being a Christian in a world in which different flavors/denominations/claims to the “true faith” seemed to be at odds with one another. This 2,000 year-old tradition, that has known so many splits and divides over time seemed, in some ways, to compete with the simple understanding of my very own experience and relationship with God. Yet I sought to understand more. Then one day I had a major spiritual experience that stopped me in my tracks. It became vividly clear that I was not called to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. I had been working towards this for over three years, thinking that my future was going in one particular direction… I had also been fiercely wresting with my fit as a UU nearly the whole time. But now what? Which way was I to go next? I didn’t know. After three days of intense inner turmoil what came to me was the thought that… during my seminary years… my mind had been in overdrive filling-up with ideas. There was a moment of vivid clarity in which I decided, or was moved by a loving and generous Spirit… to give my mind a break, to switch it off for a time, and to open my heart to let Christ work in me from the level of the heart… to let Christ lead me in the direction I was to go. It turns out that I did not need to explore ministry in the Methodist church, or the United Church or Christ, or the Lutheran Church, or somewhere else. What happened was that I went to worship an Episcopal church, just down the hill, where got down on my knees in prayer, received the sacrament at Christ’s table, and knew that I was home. The next September I found myself in an Episcopal seminary ready to re-engage my mind, a mind that was now working more in concert with my opened heart, more at peace in my identity as a Christian.
Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” They answered with a list: John the Baptist, Elijah, still others, one of the prophets. Jesus then holds up the question, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter’s simple answer: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him, for if the Romans heard that the messiah was in their midst, it would raise alarms. They would all be in mortal danger. Traditionally the notion of a messiah would have been that of a powerful king in the mold of King David… a symbol of traditional military might. This Jewish symbol of a king elicited images of insurrection and violence that was threatening to the Roman establishment. Jesus, the messiah who became one of us, born to us through a woman, came to break the mold of age- old concepts of earthly powers. His true power was more of a threat to the status quo than anyone could have imagined. Jesus tells the disciples that he is for the world… that he is going to challenge the entrenched religious establishment and the oppressive forces of the empire…He tells them that he is to suffer and die, but that he would rise again after three days. This pronouncement probably drew blank stares from the disciples as they would have had no concept of what his rising from the dead would mean in the grand scheme of things. More than that, it irked Peter that Jesus would be talking about his death and the seeming end of this great movement of which he and the disciples were a part. Peter began to rebuke Jesus. To which Jesus tells Peter “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter… you are missing the bigger picture…. it is time to let the walls come down and welcome God’s greater vision to break into our hearts, our minds, our world. You are to let go of your limited self and live into this bigger story. Lose yourself and you will gain everything.
As we grow and mature we may, or may not, take with us the simple faith of our childhoods. When we make a mature affirmation of faith, in the sacrament of confirmation, we are not promising to believe certain things forever. The promise is that we will live into the story of our faith, a story in which Jesus is at its center… a Jesus who daily looks right into us asking: “Who do YOU, say that I am?” The promise we make is that we will faithfully live into and wrestle with living questions… until our dying breath.
Who is Jesus for you? Is he neatly packaged? Is he the one who makes you too comfortable… or the one who runs you ragged trying to be the disciple you think he wants you to be… the one who tells you to pick up your cross and follow him, but maybe you pick up the cross that is not a good fit for you, and you crumple under its weight… Find the cross, the way of discipleship and witness and service, that is both a good fit yet offers a healthy challenge. Then keep the heart and mind focused on the one who calls us to fullness of life.
Who is Jesus for us?… the Jesus who is at the very center and heart of our lives…
Is Jesus the one who comforts yet challenges us not to settle with our own limited definitions?
Is He the one who calls us loosen our grip, and open and welcome this living faith that is necessarily seasoned with doubt?
Is Jesus the friend we may have met in our childhood who now dwells side-by-side with the Jesus who challenges us in our “maturity”?
Is He the one who invites us to welcome God’s working in us in deeper, less concrete, and richer ways?
The most concrete answer that I know is that we are to stand before the one whose piercingly loving presence looks into us and asks:
“Who do YOU say that I am?”