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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who is Jesus for you?

“But, who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:13-20
Pentecost X – August 21, 2011
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, Bethany Beach
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Good Morning, Christians!

I have a question to ask of you this morning. It’s the same question we heard Jesus ask of his disciples. Here it is: Who do you say that Jesus is, for you? That’s the question that is central to this morning’s gospel. It’s a question Christians everywhere and throughout time have struggled to answer for themselves – and, sometimes, for others.

Being a Christian is very important to me and, even though I love the Church – especially the Episcopal Church – being a Christian is even more important than being an Episcopalian. That’s part of my problem with the church and the reason some of my friends call me a ‘Jesus freak’ – because talking so much about Jesus is seen as being very un-Episcopalian.

I mean – lots of Jesus-talk must mean you’re some kind of Baptist, right? Now, I’m not “one of those” Christians who put themselves in front of the TV camera or radio microphone and talk about Jesus but their language and actions are far from anything that looks or sounds like Jesus.

From my perspective, the real problem is that, in The Episcopal Church in general and in Christianity in particular, we’re smack-dab in the midst of a crisis of identity. We really don’t know who we are anymore.

That wasn’t always the case – especially in The Episcopal Church, which used to be known in some circles as “God’s frozen chosen”. In other circles, we were known as “The Country Club at prayer.”

One of my favorite commentaries on this came from a cartoon in the New Yorker back in the seventies. The image is one of the distinguished looking, dashingly handsome “Father What A. Waste” standing at the church steps in full liturgical regalia. Behind him is the Announcement Board with the sermon title: “Evangelism”. In front of him are two noble matrons of the Upper East Side, dripping diamonds and draped in fur, who are saying to him, “But, Father, everyone who needs to be an Episcopalian already is.”

Thankfully, we’re not that church any more. We’re certainly no longer a private club for the “landed gentry” and elite members only. It’s pretty clear that The Episcopal Church reads the radical inclusion of Jesus in Scripture and tries to emulate that in everything we do – even when inviting absolutely everyone into our church – and the councils and corridors of power in the church – is costly.

We know what we’re not. Which begs the question: Who are we? Even more specifically, who are we as a Body of Christ? How is what we do reflective of what we know about Jesus? Which brings us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples: “But, who do you say that I am?”

I don’t know about you, but those televangelists who froth and spew venom over the airways don’t represent Jesus for me. Neither do politicians who claim a “Christian agenda” to support their personal politics.

Jesus never kept anyone from coming to him. His disciples tried a few times – especially with women – but He made it His business to eat with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and heal those who were blind or possessed with demons or had leprosy. He didn’t keep the purity codes of his religion, was highly critical of the religious leaders of his day, and, although he raised a man from the dead, he broke the law because he did so on the Sabbath.

Personally, I take my cue in defining Jesus from our Baptismal Covenant. I seek out the Christ in me so that I may find the Christ in you.

Br. David Vryhoff put it this way:
The only way we can see Jesus in others, in the hunger and thirst and nakedness and estrangement and imprisonment of others, is to have known him ourselves and to have met him in those very places in our own lives. The only way we can touch Jesus in others is to have touched him in the broken places of our own lives, the very places where he has come to seek us out and to offer us salvation.
This is only my second time in this church. I don’t know your personal stories, but I’m willing to bet solid money that some of you have broken places in your lives. Some of you have lost your jobs or fear losing your jobs. Some of you have lost loved ones and are grieving. Someone may have someone they know and love who is struggling with depression or anxiety and may be treating themselves with addictive substances like alcohol or drugs, food or gambling.

We are all broken in some way. We’re all losers who have been found by some pretty amazing grace. Truth be told, that’s really why we come to church. Not to forget about our worries, but to bring them here, to this altar, to be healed and transformed in the broken bread and the wine poured out – and, maybe even give thanks and praise to God for that healing and salvation.

When you do that, when you bring your brokenness and “lostness” o Jesus, you will suddenly find yourself on the path of your own healing and salvation. But, not for your healing and salvation only. You are offered healing and salvation so that you might see the brokenness in others and, in those places, find Jesus waiting there.

I have a dear friend who, years ago, was going through a very difficult time which included bankruptcy. The meeting with her lawyer was running overtime and he was rushing to attend a special annual mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral for lawyers.

They continued their conversation as he walked her out to the parking garage where they ran into a homeless man who was begging for spare change. The lawyer stiffened and sneered at the man as he walked by. My friend stopped and talked with the man for a few moments. Then, she reached into her purse and gave him what she had: three quarters.

As she caught up with the lawyer, he was clearly annoyed and said to her, “Why did you do that? He’s only going to spend it on booze.”

She looked at him and said, “You’re a Christian, right?”

“Of course,” he said, “I’m a Roman Catholic.”

“But,” she said, “You’re a Christian, right?”

“Yes,” he answered, getting more annoyed, “and I’m going to be late for mass.”

“Let me ask you something,” she continued. “You believe that Jesus is going to come again, right?”

“Sure,” he said, “What has that got to do with that drunk?”

“Well, she said, “Suppose that man was Jesus? Suppose he came back as a homeless man? Suppose he comes back as a homeless man to see whether or not you’ve been listening to him when he said, ‘And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to me’? All, he said. Not some. All.”

The lawyer grew quiet as she continued. “If that man was Jesus, how do you think you passed the test? Have you never been broken before? What is it that keeps your life from being completely shattered like his? What might make the difference in his life? I gave him a few minutes of my time, a few kind words and three quarters. Are you willing to risk your salvation – and, possibly his – for three pieces of silver?”

Now, that woman was not rich. Indeed, she was filing for bankruptcy. She was both broke and as broken as communion bread. She was not ordained. She was not a priest or a deacon or a member of a religious order.

He was a fairly successful lawyer. Fancy office downtown. A devoutly religious man who was rushing off to church. He was Roman Catholic. She happened to be an Episcopalian.

But, I ask you, which one was the better Christian?

I confess that, one day, when I grow up, I want to be that kind of Christian.

Here’s the thing – I think we need to claim our Christian identity right where we are. “Just as I am, without one plea.” Broken and imperfect as we are.

The problem is that we’ve allowed others to hijack the definition of what it means to be Christian. You are a Christian. Maybe not the best Christian. Maybe you’d not do what my friend did. But, you are broken, too. And, in need of healing which, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, brought you to church this morning.

And, in the sacred heart of Jesus, you are the best kind of Christian there is – one who brings their brokenness to Jesus. Now your job is to look for that brokenness in others and offer the healing and hope and salvation of Jesus.

I’m not suggesting that you stand out at the beach and hand out pamphlets that offer “The Way To Salvation”. You don’t have to stand on the street corners with a megaphone, much less appear on the radio or television. You just need to let the Light of Christ shine in you and let people know that you are what a Christian looks like – someone who is broken just like them who seeks the Christ in themselves and in others.

In the tradition of the ancient Rabbis there is a saying that, before every human being go a hundred thousand angels who sing, “Make way! Make way for an image of God.”

I’d like to start a Christian teaching that says that before every human being go a hundred thousand angels who sing, “Make way! Make way for an image of Jesus.”

How would the church be different if we believed that and acted accordingly? How would the world be a different place if we believed that and acted accordingly?

Want the Episcopal Church to be the best church in all of Western Christendom? Try being a better Christian.

Want St. Martha’s to be the best church in The Episcopal Church? Try spending some time imagining that Jesus is asking you the question, “But who do you say I am?”

Answer that question for yourself. Then, live in your lives what you profess with your lips.

If you want to know who Jesus is and answer his question for yourself, I have three suggestions:

First, be less concerned about how others define ‘Christian’ and more concerned about following Christ. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what you read in Scripture about Him and follow His teaching.

Second, just look in the mirror. Who do you see? Does that person live what s/he says they believe? Have you brought your broken places to Jesus to be mended and healed? Are you on the road to working out your own salvation?

If not, then repent – turn around – change. It’s not an impossible task. To repent doesn’t mean to put on a hair shirt and wail, “I’m an unworthy sinner”. It means “turn around”.

Don’t like the path you’re on? Get off it! Turn around! Take another direction. Ask Jesus for help. Remember: Christ lives in you.

Finally, look around this church. St. Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ. If you want to see Jesus, look around the church.

And, look outside the red doors of the church. Indeed, look around at the people in the world – even those who aren’t Christian. Seek out the Christ in you and the Christ in others in the broken and dark places of life. The thin ray of Light you see shinning there has a name. That Light is Jesus.

When you can do these things – find Jesus in Scripture and follow his teaching, see the Christ in your own brokenness and in the brokenness of others – you’ll not only have your own Christian identity, you’ll also be one heck of an Episcopalian.



walter said...

Elizabeth 4, “IT” is by drinking at the well of Elizabeth Kaeton & Walter Vitale Collective Unconscious God - there an interesting distinction happens: Imago Dei versus Imago Jesus. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused, Jesus the Christ.

Walter Vitale

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, thought-provoking post.

I must admit...there are a couple of very striking phrases in the entire Bible that, even though they are very short, have such huge impact they always stop me in my tracks.

One is from Genesis: "Fiat Lux!"

Another is "why do you seek the living among the dead?"

And you mentioned another one in this post: “But who do you say I am?”

So much is said in so few words.

walter said...

Elizabeth 4, I like very much what Tracie wrote.

Walter Vitale