Sermon for Year B, Proper 18
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
September 16, 2012
Peter confesses that Jesus alone is Lord –
Not Cesar, not any of the Greek gods the Romans worshipped,
Especially there at Cesarea Philippi where so much blood was spilled, …
No one but Jesus –
Jesus is Lord and God, Christ and Messiah. No other competition prevails.
We’d like to think we know precisely what he means when he tells Jesus
“You are the Messiah,”
But we can’t. We can’t know it with absolute precision.
As usual, it’s sort of convoluted by history.
What we can say, from our vantage point in history,
Is that his pointing to Jesus and acclaiming him Messiah
Was, for Mark, one of the central moments of his gospel.
It was a moment preceded by a miracle of loaves and fishes
And followed by the Transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain –
A moment that, for the readers and hearers of Mark,
Would have taken the words of the confession of Peter, still hanging fresh in the air,
And made them undeniably concrete.
Ask Peter who Jesus is. He’s ready with an answer.
‘Course, Peter’s also truly human: and he’ll bungle that response soon enough
By letting his ego get in the way and tripping over his own words;
And later, he’ll deny his confession outright, but for now, it’s enough.
It’s an admission of the stark truth.
Back in June of this year, my colleague Jim Naughton
Posted an article titled “A dumb question I’ve been meaning to ask”
To the web site that I help out on a little, the Episcopal Café.
Jim has a way of saying things that,
Once you’ve heard him say them,
You smack your head and wonder why you hadn’t thought of it yourself.
A former baseball reporter, he writes in snappy sentences that clear out the fog.
So. Here’s what Jim wrote:
“I have had [a] question on my mind for a few weeks
That I have only recently decided is worth asking.
“Is it important that we speak compellingly about Jesus?
“The answer might seem obvious.
Of course, as a Christian church, we need to speak compellingly about Jesus.
“And yet, I don't hear that many preachers – even good ones –
Speaking compellingly about Jesus.
I don't know of many dioceses in which Episcopalians
Are being taught to speak compellingly about Jesus,
And even when people say that we need to preach the Gospel,
I experience this as a call to spread certain values,
Rather than as an invitation to figure out what Jesus was up to.
Jim went on to write, “I am not an evangelical.
And I understand … contemporary seekers
Might not immediately be interested
In a set of … propositions.
I am aware that the Bible has been used as a club
Against minorities and marginalized people of all kinds.
Still, if we aren’t offering people a deep and abiding encounter with Jesus,
Then I don’t understand what we are up to as a church.
To my ears, we don’t sound like a church
That takes this encounter as its reason for existing.
But perhaps I am wrong about our purpose, or am not listening to the right people.”
Jim kicked up quite the discussion with that item,
And he left that one statement kicking around in me, consciously and unconsciously,
All the way up into the pulpit this morning so I could share it with you:
“[I]f we aren’t offering people a deep and abiding encounter with Jesus,” he wrote,
“Then I don’t understand what we are up to as a church.”
I want, this morning, to expand on this line of thought.
First of all, I want to assume that it is absolutely crucial
To “speak compellingly” about Jesus, to “figure out what he was up to,”
And to “offer a deep and abiding encounter with him.”
I also need to further assume that this is not just the job of Members of the Clergy,
But rather, the clear responsibility of each and every baptized person in the room.
I want to assume that because if I can’t assume that,
Then I should assume instead that I am, perhaps, just in the wrong building,
Or some strange club with a lot of rituals and symbols
That talks about Jesus because it’s required
But has no need to do so compellingly, with full throat and heart and mind and soul.
If I can’t assume that Peter’s confession is true
And that I should be confessing it with my own lips and in my own life,
Then I should really just do everyone a favor and go back to bed.
There is, though, this one small problem,
Which is simply this: We don’t talk about Jesus. We no longer confess.
We like to attribute the phrase
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words” to St. Francis.
In reality, we don’t know who said it, and it’s just as well.
It’s a nice thought on its face, but really –
Aren’t we using words to communicate everything these days?
So the St. Francis bit should be a big winner with people who don’t talk
And/or who read minds, but as for the rest of us, …
I don’t know; if we took it on its face, I could see the profit.
But I’m not sure we do; seems to me this little nugget
Is a way to avoid talking about what we believe, talking about Jesus.
Again, in the ‘70s we got this great term, “Lifestyle evangelism,”
Today the evangelistic method-of-choice practiced by 100 million Christians.
This is also evangelism for psychics and mind-readers,
Where it’s claimed that it’s more effective to just live a simple and good life
Than it is to actually talk about Jesus
Because it’s harder to live a righteous existence than it is to go around preaching.
A hundred million Christians.
And again, if we took it on its face, it would be easy to go there.
By these numbers, if it really worked, the world would be all for Jesus by now.
But again, it seems to have proved not so much an evangelistic tool for Christ
As it has a set of rationale for why we don’t have to talk about him.
We may say that we place Christ at the center of all things,
But by and large, when you break it down, the rhetoric today mostly is about being nice,
Or offering good programs, or beautiful music, or transcendent architecture,
Or something that sounds like church but isn’t specifically
About the transformation we experience when we place ourselves
In the hands of the living God,
Who in our faith narrative we know most intimately as Jesus Christ.
We don’t do it, and why? Why not?
I think I might have some ideas.
Because it’s hard.
Because Midwesterners don’t like to focus too much on themselves
When they talk to other people.
Because it’s “woo-woo” religion – you can say “God” some, but not “Jesus” a lot.
Because it crosses too many social barriers.
Because it wrongly assumes other people will be comfortable
With us disclosing more about ourselves than they may want to know.
Because “Jesus Christ” as a concept is weighed down and brimming
With waaay too many political and religious associations
That we may not want to be lumped in with.
Because The Episcopal Church is for socially conscious people
With standing and obligation in the community,
Who can’t afford to be sullied by too much religion.
Because the last time someone said “Let me tell you about Jesus,”
He was wearing a sandwich board and ringing a bell and waving a Bible
And going on about the End of Time
And why you were going to get the short end of the deal,
And who wants to be associated with that?
Does that begin to touch on some of it?
Please know that a person who wears a black shirt and clerical collar
And a cross around his neck
Is in no way immune from this kind of thinking.
Why else should I be able to pinpoint it?
I can assure you, I didn’t do focus group testing to come up with that list!
Brothers and sisters, I shake in my boots every time I talk with a stranger about Jesus:
I don’t know whether they’re going to up and fly away,
And I don’t have enough charm and wit to keep things going on my own.
I just know that I trust God to carry me through every conversation,
And I never have to be anything more or less than who I am.
Underneath all the societal baggage is the sure knowledge
That I am always a child of God.
So I don’t have to fake a second of it.
Plus, from deep within, I have a clear sense steering me, and I bet you do, too,
That the Jesus I have come to know and confess
Is not the Messiah of exclusivity or one-party politics
Or hatred or hell or thoughtlessness, …
But is the Messiah of peace, shalom, justice, healing,
The Messiah of the Kingdom of God, come on earth as it is in heaven.
That the Messiah I confess broke bread with sinners and outcasts,
And taught us all to pray,
And calls us each and every one to do the same for one another.
If you were baptised in The Episcopal Church, there is a question that was asked of you
On the very day you were baptised.
If you were not old enough to answer at the time,
It was answered by someone else for you,
But then later the decision was given back to you to make for yourself.
I was not baptised in the Episcopal tradition, but when I was confirmed
I took that question on for myself anyway in the words of The Baptismal Covenant.
If you have never heard of or read about The Baptismal Covenant,
You can still hear this question right now and take it into yourself.
That question, plain and strong, is this:
The minister asks,
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
And the person to whom the question is directed responds,
“I will, with God’s help.”
Now, there’s a clear question, and a clear answer,
That will cut through the clutter.
We didn’t just get baptised long ago and far away;
We didn’t just promise to do things that were expedient or convenient for ourselves:
We all promised God that we would possess the confessing tongue of Saint Peter.
So it is that we find this somewhat harsh light shining on us today –
This deep, dark part of ourselves we weren’t sure we would have to explore
When we came through the door.
If we talk about Jesus, and how and when and where.
Whether we’re willing to be accountable for promises we have made.
Dear friends, if God is active and moving in our lives,
Then let’s give thanks for it.
Let us confess with our lips and our lives
Without apology or hesitation
That we are loved beyond reason by God the Father,
Enlivened by the power of God the Spirit,
And deeply embraced in our humanity by God the Son:
Yes, even Jesus Christ, who is our Lord.