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Sunday, September 17, 2006

But who do you say that I am?

Mark 8:27-38
XV Pentecost – September 17, 2006

The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

We all heard this saying as we grew up: “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” Eventually, we all learned that it was a lie. Names do hurt. Just ask any kid who was slightly overweight who was called, “Fatso.” Or anyone who had to wear glasses and was called, “Four eyes.” It’s not so much the case anymore, because it’s become strangely fashionable, but when I was growing up, kids with braces were called, “Metal mouth.”

As adults, we can look back on those times and laugh them off. “Oh, kids can be cruel,” we say, as if it were simply a fact of life, like rainy days or snowy seasons. But that neither dismisses nor diminishes the stinging pain of it – especially not for those of us who remember being taunted in the school yard, having our humanity reduced because we were a little overweight, or wore glasses, or had braces.

For those of us who were “different” in any way, it was even more painful. Being part of the latest wave of immigrants put my family in an entirely different category of humiliation. The French Canadian and Irish kids who had come before us seemed to forget the sting of the name calling they had endured. Indeed, they seemed to relish in now doling it out to others.

I have clear memories of coming home, crying to my mother, asking her why the kids were being so mean. “Because they are stupid,” my mother would say (imagine!), repeating, the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” Except, they did. I always thought that saying was more stupid than the kids who called me names.

There’s an old story that’s told in many Philosophy 101 courses about the conversation between three baseball umpires. They were talking about how they called the pitches that came across home base. The first umpire said, “I call ‘em like they are.” The second umpire said, “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” The third umpire said, “They ain’t nothin’ till I call ‘em.”

Jesus knew the power of words and especially, the power of naming. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked the disciples. And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

I imagine him considering all of these very carefully before he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” It’s an important question, which goes to the core issue of the human enterprise: identity. How we know ourselves is critically important. Equally important, however, is how we are known in the world. In many ways, we are who we are – the way we were born – and, we are called into being.

An infant knows who s/he is because s/he is held in her (his) mother’s arms and spoken to. I watch in awe as our daughter Karen relates with our newest grandbaby, Abigayle, and the process is unmistakable. Abi knows her name because she first knew her mother’s voice. She has come to know who she is because her mother calls her name.

As God breathed life into Adam and Eve, Abi has been called into being. That identity is reinforced by her father and her sister and her grandparents and aunts and uncles. Abi knows who she is because she has been called by her name. Who she will become will depend as much on the relationships she has with her family and relatives and friends as on the genetic code of her DNA.

So it is with each one of us. And yet, language, as we hear it and speak it, is very ambiguous. We miss a lot, we misunderstand a lot. No matter how logically and plainly things are said, the listener quite often doesn’t get it. Conversely, no matter how attentive and knowledgeable the listener, the speaker often doesn’t say it right. We proceed as T.S. Eliot once put it, by “hints followed by guesses.”

The writer of the Epistle of James has some very powerful things to say about the tongue. He writes, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire!” I remember my father telling me about the saying in WWII: ‘Loose lips sink ships.”

Author and biblical translator, Eugene Peterson once said, “I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language. If (God) had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding, (God) should have revealed truth by means of mathematics. Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language that we have. But then, of course, you can’t say, ‘I love you’ in algebra.” (Eat This Book)

I am reminded of a wonderful love story of a couple I once counseled for marriage. As anyone who has gone through premarital counseling with me knows, the first session is mostly taken up with my asking, “Tell me a love story. Tell me how you met and how you fell in love.” There was this older couple (not in this church, I hasten to add), who were both academicians in a major university. Both had been married and divorced. Both were fast approaching their 60’s.

They were good friends. Dear friends. Had been for years. They were good friends who saw each other every day. They had lunch together most very day in the cafeteria. They had dinner together regularly – often after watching a movie together. One day, during dinner, Alan (I’ll call him) and Evelyn (I’ll call her) were sharing a laugh over a story Alan had told while they were having dinner. It was a lovely evening, Alan related, and Evelyn’s laughter sounded like music to his ears on that starry, starry night.

Suddenly, not knowing what exactly overtook him, he looked at her beautiful smiling face and asked, “What are we doing?” Evelyn laughed and said, “Oh, silly, we’re having dinner.” “No,” said Alan, “I mean it. What are we doing?” Evelyn said that in that moment, she knew everything had suddenly changed. Still, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“Look at us,” Alan said. “We see each other every day. We have lunch together every day and frequent dinners together. We only go out with each other. And you know what? I can’t imagine a day going by without you in it.” Evelyn looked at him and said, “Do you think we may be in love?” At which point they both burst into laughter. Alan said, “You know, for two highly educated, very intelligent people, we’re pretty stupid about this, aren’t we?” And they laughed themselves right into a proposal of marriage an engagement ring and into my office to arrange their marriage. Indeed, they are still laughing together.

“Everything changed with that one question,” said Alan. “What are we doing?” Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And, Peter nailed it (to turn a phrase), “You are the Messiah.” Suddenly, everything changed. This must have deeply startled Jesus, or at least, it rang an alarm for him, because scripture says that Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone.

When he told the apostles the truth about what was to happen (scripture says, “he said all these things quite openly”), Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. You can almost hear him say to Jesus, “What are we doing?” But, this time, this was no laughing matter. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but being named the Messiah will get you killed.

The question of identity is very powerful. Who do we say Jesus is? How do we, the church, the Body of Christ, identify Jesus in our midst? What do people know about Jesus because they know something about the people of The Episcopal Church of St. Paul in Chatham, New Jersey? This is a question we will be wrestling with this year as we consider our unique vocation, our particular mission and ministry, in this community. For, like the umpires, we can call Jesus like he is; we call Jesus like we see him, but Jesus becomes even more alive in our lives when we call him by His Name as savior and Lord.

Last week, we sang, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” as we considered our lives five years after 9/11. This week, I have words to another hymn I’d like you to consider. The hymn was written by Laurence Houseman for the opening of the League of Nations. You can find it in your hymnal #573: “How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being, if we love not the world which thou hast made? Bind us in thine own love for better seeing thy Word made flesh, and in a manger laid: thy Kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.


(My thanks to Arthur, Tom, Abi, MacKenna Jane, T.S. Elliot, Eugene Peterson, and“Alan and Evelyn” for calling this sermon into being.)

1 comment:

wmj said...

I have had the same feeling about this phrase since I was a child, chased from playgrounds, beaten in school yards, and even into my days in the first gay rights marches.

The thing is, I survived and flourished. I wonder where the bullies are today. The idea that "names can never hurt you" in my experience has made me stronger and more careful.

Of course, that does not heal the pain. It just makes me more determined to keep going and keep on, keepin' on.

I had nothing to be ashamed of then (though I didn't know it) and I have nothing to be ashamed of now.