Last week on our Gathering Sunday we recognized the wisdom of the founders of this church community who knew the importance of impartiality in creating a safe, secure, and life giving church home. For over a century now, we continue to live their vision as we welcome and value not a particular people who believe in a particular way or live in a particular style, but instead as we welcome and value all people.
And knowing that here we are loved the same frees us from trying to be the same. Instead knowing we are loved the same invites us to be our most authentic selves and opens us to the life giving and transforming presence of God’s grace not only in our individual lives and in our life together but also in our lives out in the wider world.
This Sunday, I’d like us to pick up where we left off. But before we do let us pray “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen. “
They were at work. Their bodies move in the pattern that each muscle in their arms and their backs had come to know so well. There was a kind of beauty in it; the rhythm of throwing out the net and of hand over hand hauling it in. There was strength and balance. Centering one’s weight. Finding a firm footing in the heaving and pitching boat. And there also was a kind of listening with more than the ear – listening, feeling really for where the fish were. Feeling for where the hunger was. The precision of carefully letting down the net to just the right depth. And the patience it took to let it sit awhile — waiting out the urge to haul upward before the time was ripe.
They were out doing what they knew best in these motions of strength, control, precision, perception and patience when he happened to wandered by — there on the shoreline. He stopped and turned to them and observed them a while. And then he said to them. “Come, Follow me.” And as improbable as it sounds — something about who he was and who they were — melded in that moment. They heard him and they followed him.
They took who they were, all they had known, all the muscle memory in their strong arms and backs, their sense of balance and their keen listening; their patience and perception– all that they had learned on the open and often wild sea – they took all of it and stepped onto land, into something new, in order to follow him.
First it was these fishermen, but soon it would a tax collector, and then Mary and Martha and other women, and soon after the blind and the lame, and the outcasts.
As they walked together the bonds of friendship among them grew stronger. And as if in direct proportion to how powerfully close they were experiencing this new community to be, they also began to experiencing powerful times of healing and wholeness that continually widened the welcome of their community drawing in others who began experiencing for themselves the healing of God’s love.
They walked with each other and with this man they knew as Jesus and they found a way to feed five thousand hungry people. They found a way to cast out the demons that kept people from thriving. They worked hard but they also enjoyed being with each other. They felt loved and valued, like they had a role to play in something really important.
Do they, this congregation of such different and diverse people from so long ago, do they remind you of anyone? Does the feeding of the five thousand remind you perhaps of our own capital campaign where what was thought impossible becomes plausible when all gave what we could? Does the casting out of demons have an echo of our work to bring clean water to people in san Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, education to people in M’tendere, Zambia, food to people that hunger in Newton and fellowship to our friends at Waban health center, to do our best to counter whatever it is that is diminishing the fullness of our fellow brother and sisters? Is there an echo of what it felt to walk together with such love and purpose for us here today? I think so.
And then in the midst of all this activity; amidst the intoxication of doing such amazing things and of the thrill of fellowship, Jesus slows it all down a moment. He pauses asks them a question. He asks them “Who do you say that I am?”
He turns to this group that have grown so close and throws open a door to a wider dimension of their life together. “Who do you say that I am?” He asks. In essence, I think, he is asking them to consider how it is they understand their life together in relationship to who they are beginning to understand Jesus to be. The question implies that who they are together is shaped and informed by their relationship with Jesus. And conversely, and this is pretty fascinating for me to think about, how they understand Jesus and the God who sent him will inform and shape their experience of their life together. If we are to be Jesus hands and feet in the world, imitators of Christ to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, imitators of the one who is the revelation of God enfleshed, then how we are together ought to carry some resemblance of how we understand God to be. To look at who we are together as church ought to be something of how we see God.
So Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?”
Actually, Jesus first asks is “ Who do they say that I am?”
That’s and easier question to answer isn’t it? They all jump in with answers. “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.” Its easier, isn’t it to report out what others have said about God than to come up with what it is that we ourselves have come to know?
For many of us have grown up hearing someone else’s opinion about who God is or isn’t. Right? Maybe when we were small our church told us who God is and what to believe. Maybe it was our parents. Maybe we hear it now on the news as various social issues are tossed back and forth. Maybe we wonder about where God is in the news these days as what is Holy for many is mocked and as violence in the name of what some see as Holy erupts destroying and claiming lives. Everyone seems to have an opinion on who God is and what God values. How are we to make sense of it all?
There is a story that goes something like this. A woman is talking with her minister and she declares she is an atheist and that she does not believe in God. The minster takes a moment and then responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. For I probably don’t believe in that God either.”
Now what on the surface of this exchange is endearing, on a deeper level it is rather unnerving for it points to the truth that our ability to articulate who or what God is will always be inadequate. Words are human constructs; God is not. To hold God in words is inevitably to diminish God. That is not to say we should stop talking about God, but it is to take the admonition in the wisdom from the reading of James very seriously. We ought to choose our words carefully. Words can open or close understanding. They can lead to life or they can take away from life. And so we must, I believe and always be careful and recognize that what we say about God is not prescriptive, it does not define who God is; our words are always descriptive, they describe who we and others who we trust have experienced God to be.
And with that we are suddenly back with the fishermen, the women, the tax collector, the lame and the blind that are standing there around Jesus with healing and hope surrounding them as he asks them “But who do you say I am?”
“Who do you say that I am?” To answer that question is to draw on on the truth of our own lived experience. In the past perhaps being church was about passing the faith test. If you could say the creed, believe the doctrine, then you were part of the pack. But times have changed. We are a postmodern people who do not accept simply because others do or because we are told to do so.
No blind belief may be no more but thanks be to God, God is more than blind belief. Thanks be to God for discernment and hard questions and committed walks of faith. We like those first disciples are invited to speak of God through what we have experienced God to be. For most of us that comes through small moments of lived revelation not flashes of crystal clarity. It comes through tears streaming down Elizabeth’s face as an aid at the Waban health center helps her take the communion bread in that moment we see that no one is to be left out circle of God’s grace and that each of us have a role to play in helping that be so. It comes through that time in book group when the talk of plot and character opened to a heart felt sharing about how hard it is to let go of hurt and how difficult it is to forgive. Through that moment we saw something of the struggle of our shared humanity and the invitation of grace that sometimes is just too hard to grasp. It comes through that time as Julia and I hugged eachother to try get warm in the chill of the African sun rise as we stood in awe at the warm of new friendships that enfolded us. In that moment, I felt the blessing of being loved the same, of being no more and no less than simply being a part of the family of all of God’s creatures.
You know, I think this is a really exciting time in what it is to be church. It is redefining time. People are no longer going to church because it is just the thing to do. People actually want a compelling reason. What difference does it make? What is the point?
We now have two answers to that question.
One because church is a community that loves the same and in loving the same opens up the safe space to not be the same but instead to be our truest most authentic selves.
And Two: because being secure in being loved for who we are not for what we may or may not believe opens up the space to really grapple with what we may or may not believe. It opens up the space to wrestle with the question of who God is to us and how we are to be with God.
Now I hope some of you are asking yourself at this point, so what? Why does that question of “who do you say that I am?” matter. Isn’t it enough just to stick to the first answer? Isn’t it just enough to just be together in life giving ways? Why talk about God, or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, or moreness, or the sacred or whatever language we would use at all? Doesn’t that just make people feel uncomfortable and as we have seen in the world, doesn’t that just lead to more antagonism and misunderstanding?
Perhaps. But I think it is crucial to remember — we do not shape who God is but we are shaped by who and how we understand God to be. To not grapple with the question is a disservice to the truth of who we are and who God ultimately is and may be for us. So let us also remember this story when we do dare wrestle with this question. Jesus asks the disciples this after they already know what it is to be in his company and to be in fellowship with each other and to live in life giving ways. The answer to the question of who God is for us now, is already seeded in our live together. Let us live into what is seeded so that we may fully see and share in God’s presence among us, and God’s presence in the world lived through us. Amen.