Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Isaiah 51:1–6 | Romans 12:1–8 | Matthew 16:13–20
If you were to show some “identification,” you would probably come up with a driver’s license or something with your name and a picture of your face on it. These days, my phone and computer know it’s me by my fingerprint (which of course meant before I was very tech savvy, I ended up with my daughter’s toe prints on my phone instead…) Retinal scanners and DNA testing can also be used to identify a person… and of course, all good spy movies have tampering with any of these systems! It’s interesting, however, that our identity as we experience it, is so much more. How we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us might be influenced by our names somewhat (like ‘Austin’ from last week)—and by our culture, race, family and personality. Psychology Today says this, “Identity encompasses memories, experiences, relationships and values that create one’s sense of self: This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one’s identity.”
Identity is important today: It’s about Israel—as the collective people—who are in exile in Babylon—who are despairing and wondering if they will even continue to exist as a people. It’s an identity crisis! That is, they are facing possible non-existence as a group. The prophet Isaiah summons their ancestors as a reminder: Abraham and Sarah, along with the image of being hewn from this rock; “a chip off the old block” as we might say—something solid with a solid history. They needn’t worry, as people belonging to God, as God has been involved all along, no matter how it feels. The images of their memories, experiences and relationships continues: Zion, the mountain back home where they worshiped God; Eden, the idyllic garden—memory of God’s ongoing creative work. And there’s the values that God embraces and gives to the people: Teaching that brings justice as a light; and as a bonus, to ALL the people. There’s assurance. And also, God’s own identity and goodness being so huge that it can’t be contained.
A few years later, we hear Jesus diving into some terms or names that are embedded in his culture—but no actual person that has really lined up with them. It’s like there’s an Identity, but no Person: A shadowy idea of a “Son of Man” (ben adam in Hebrew.. human?) with divine power perhaps—in the popular apocalyptic writings a few years earlier: Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit. “Who is this?” The disciples guess from their collective history: They half-heartedly name off some prophets—incl. the late John the Baptist. Then Jesus gets a little more vulnerable as asks: “What say you? Who am I?” They’ve had some time to weigh this issue about a man who is very much like them in many ways, and yet not: Watch—least from the outside—what Jesus experiences, who he relates to, what he values: As he provides enough food for the people who come and listen to him, how he calms storms and chides his disciples, how he has compassion and heals illnesses and casts out demons, how he teaches something very different from the values of their world. Indeed, what do they make of it? What do I make of it? Jesus doesn’t get caught up in the things that other people usually do: Things like worrying and judging and moralizing. He unearths the depths of the matter in the sermon on the mount (we get off track just by thinking about things), turns our values upside down (the meek shall inherit the earth), teaches and tells stories about the wonder of God’s reign already surrounding us. He shows, rather than tells, and keeps pointing back to God: which all adds up to SOMETHING.
For Peter it looks like what a Savior should really look like—the “Messiah” that is in the hearts of the people as the way out of their seeming abandonment once again—again by pointing to God and God’s way of justice and spaciousness, rather than plucking people out of the world. Also, Peter says, “Son of the Living God.” There’s a reality and immediacy to how God shows up in Jesus… And Jesus response- how “happy” or “blessed” Peter is for knowing WHO he is. In fact, being able to see the connection unlocks the door between heaven and earth. This is no small thing!
I don’t think we can underestimate how valuable it is just to be able to behold who Jesus IS: Even if we don’t completely understand it—which is probably the case. I hope you can find that space—whether it’s in prayer or quiet or in awe and wonder. This “seeing” has a way of shaping our own identities—really without our effort, but by “the grace given to us.” (Romans.) Certainly we have our own experiences and values that have formed us in particular, but we get a lot of ego tangled up in our identity: Comparing ourselves to others. Feeling better than and less than—probably both within the hour. I think this is why Paul encourages his sisters and brothers in Rome to be “Transformed and not Conformed.” It’s exhausting and confusing to try to be what we are not. “Discerning what is good and acceptable and perfect or better—complete”—actually isn’t as hard as we think. Paul encourages realistic humility—that is not shame. He lifts up the differences as God-given; and our bodies—that is, our whole selves—as a part of this relationship. It’s a call to re-examine the identities that we have adopted in the world- ones that may degrade others and the earth—(collective You here) and rest back in the Identity that is a Given.
Very shortly, in fact, Jesus will say to his disciples that, to follow him, they’ll need to pick up their crosses- and “lose” their lives—in order to find them. Fr. Keating says we cling to our False-Self, which is a result of misusing our freedom [for our own supposed gain, as well as] the imposition on us of all the negative forces in the environment and the social milieu.” Our job,” he says “is letting go of those influences—not reinforcing them.” “All you have to do is stop being who you think you are, and you couldn’t be more delightful! … You don't have to create the beauty—you've got the beauty. You don't have to create the freedom—you’ve got it. You don't have to create the image of God in you—you have it. You don't have to win over God's love—you have more than you know what to do with. You don't have to become more beautiful—because nothing could be more beautiful than your own particular uniqueness.” (p. 69) How’s that for identity?
The wonderful perk of knowing the identity of Jesus is that it grows our own identity toward this holy dynamic: The less we hang on to ourselves (personally, collectively) and see things in “wholes,” the more sure we are of WHO WE ARE.
Isaiah: “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” For you. ALL. Thanks be to God. Amen.