Homily for the 17th Sunday of Pentecost – September 16, 2012
FOLLOWING JESUS; BECOMING MYSELF
Recently, I heard a voice from above, and the voice was asking “Who are you?” I quickly realized it was Sarah McLachlan singing on the store sound track, from her song Sweet Surrender. As our recent readings have taught us, God’s Wisdom speaks as a feminine voice, so it was quite appropriate. Sarah’s divine voice raised a very good question: “Who are you?”
I remember High School kids showing up at school in weird outfits and other kids asking them: “Who are you supposed to be?” They were in a process of trying to discover a look, a feel, a style, that was their own. That can take a while and lead us through some pretty unfortunate experiments. Others were pretty much content to blend in – to try to make themselves look like everyone else – conform to the norm. Many of us, though, continue try on different clothes and continue to search for the right look – the right identity – for much of our lives.
Who are you? My theory is that many of us aren’t that clear about who we are. Are we merely the roles we play – are we merely the things we do to gain acceptance? And it’s not as if that is irrelevant. We are who we relate to — we are who we are largely by virtue of relationships.There is always a tension between absorption on one side and isolation on the other. We must be aware enough to keep that tension dynamic and elastic.
Today’s Gospel is about not getting stuck in limiting conceptions of God and of ourselves, and about not letting fear dictate what we are about.
The writer Ann Lamott said: “You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t. You take the action, and the insight follows: You don’t think your way into becoming yourself. I can’t tell you what your next action will be, but mine involved a full stop. I had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good and the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it is harder when they have to catch up to you in roadrunner mode. So one day I did stop. I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights.”
Jesus calls his followers to take major steps in faith, because Christianity is a journey, a pilgrimage, and not merely a status we attain (whether by Baptism, by correct belief, etc.). At one point, after his disciples had been with him for a considerable period of time, Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And then he asked “But who do YOU say that I am?”
There is a need for such full-stop moments, when we attempt to reflect and get some perspective – get our bearings on where we are in life, and who we are, and why we’re doing the things we do.
He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “Some say you must be John the Baptist; others are saying you are Elijah; and still others, that you’re one of the prophets.” There were all kinds of impressions out there, which is what typically happens: people try to fit you in to some existing slot in their brains – something they already know about and have experienced. In Jesus’ case, people’s “prophet” was one conception people thought they knew, so that’s how they categorized Jesus. With Jesus, as with those around us, and even ourselves, it’s important to re-examine our conceptions to make sure we don’t limit people, and instead allow them to become fuller and more complete.
Who is Jesus? Who is God? It seems like it’s never a simple answer. This is the maddening aspect of faith: you usually don’t get absolute and definitive answers – it’s like you just get more questions. There may be “50 shades of gray,” but there are 50,000 shades of God. And it’s important not to get stuck on one impression.
Peter ventures that Jesus must be the Messiah, an ancient Jewish concept about a Saviour figure who would come to rescue and redeem Israel. Jesus apparently consents to that, but when Jesus tells them where he must go to fulfill his destiny, Peter tries to get in his way. The text suggests he may even have attempted to man-handle Jesus a bit. Jesus has just revealed something deeper, more difficult about himself – he has just proclaimed his true essence and reason for being — and his “friends” try to squelch it. Everything was OK when he was going around making everybody else happy — feeding, healing, etc. But his disciples don’t want to hear about anything that will threaten what they have come to know and expect from him.
You find out who your friends are when you reveal something deep and close to your heart. For some people that might be that they are followers of Jesus in this secular age; for someone else it might be that they want to become a war correspondent journalist; for someone else it might be that they are gay.
Peter is like most of us: I want the Jesus who gets me a new car – who helps me win the lottery. I want the Jesus who tells me I’m special and pats me on the back. I don’t want to be with this Jesus who pulls me along toward dangerous places, who pushes me into confrontation with injustice, who risks and even offers his life in some larger cause I don’t really understand. I don’t want the Jesus who pushes me out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Who Jesus was had to come out at some point, but it is equally true for all of us. The hope is we don’t wait until we’re on our death bed to reveal to the world who we are (“Ladies and gentlemen, the act you’ve been waiting for, finally appearing on the world stage, at 89 years young, Angela Splat, in person!)
You also find out who you are when you are prepared to stand on your own regardless of what your friends think. It is in deciding to take that stand that we begin to become who we are in Christ. Parker Palmer says: “Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“Coming out,” as it were, can be hard and painful. But Jesus can really only lead us to one place — to become ourselves – that place where we can say, as he did, as God did: “I AM.”
We were at the ocean recently and we saw this huge brown bird chasing a smaller white bird around. The brown bird was actually a juvenile sea gull – the white bird was an adult seagull. The juvenile, though almost full grown, and larger than the bird it was following, was still trying to get the adult bird to feed it, take care of it. It seemed like a parable playing out before our eyes.
You may love a swim coach who never tries to push you into deeper water or a teacher who does her kids homework for them and gives them all A’s, or a parent who never pushes you out of the “nest,” but they are really of no use to you at all.
Today’s Gospel represents a key moment, when we move from a passive and juvenile faith into a more mature faith that is willing to take responsibility and to put the focus on what we are meant to do, rather than continuing to be told what to do and be. It is that moment when we choose to live no longer in fear, and step forward in faith toward our own destiny.
So too a parish must push people toward a deeper discipleship – move them toward deeper water, get them to do the work of theological reflection and self-awareness and exploration of their vocation/calling.
Such a shift of focus and direction means the end of what we were and a step toward something unknown and frightening. It often means a painful letting go, even an experience of death. But the witness of the Christian Gospel is that death no longer has dominion – death is no longer the defining factor in human life. In Christ, we find that it is by being willing to let go that we actually discover the life that really matters – and that is an experience of the Resurrection.
And so Jesus says to us: “For those of you who want to save your lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save them. For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Indeed, what can you give in return for their life?”
There is a Hasidic tale that speaks to the tendency to want to be someone else and the importance of becoming one’s true self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, God will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ God will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Dare to be yourself, and embrace the journey with Christ into fullness of life.
The Reverend Grant Rodgers+