RCL Year A, Proper 16
There’s an old joke my family likes to tell. A man goes into a greasy diner to get some breakfast. The waitress comes over to his table, slams down the menu, and says, ‘Well? Whaddya want?’ The man says, ‘I’ll take two eggs and toast.’ ‘Anything else?’ The waitress snarls. ‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘a few kind words.’ The waitress stalks off and returns in a few minutes with the eggs and toast. ‘What about the kind words?’ asks the man. The waitress leans in close, and says, ‘Don’t eat the eggs.’
There are times in our lives when we need people to tell us the truth. We might find ourselves at a crossroads and need wisdom on what choice to make. Should I go back to school or not? Should I marry this person? What do you think? Or we might be in a conflict with someone and need another person’s perspective on it. Am I right, or is she? How do I respond to this? Those are the times when it is good to have people around us who can be honest. It’s nice to be flattered; it’s lovely to hear compliments; but sometimes we need someone to just really help us see what is what.
I wonder if that isn’t partly what is going on in the gospel story today. Jesus wants to know what his disciples think of him. After several months following Jesus around and hearing him teach, seeing him heal, and knowing him as a friend, what do they say about him? And moreover, what do others say?
It’s a good thing Jesus wasn’t somebody who needed to be liked. Well, Jesus’ disciples say, some people think you’re John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah. Some people, in other words, think you’re a divisive, intense, alienating prophet of doom. That seems to be generally what people think of you, Jesus.
Pretty honest. Nobody out there seemed to think of Jesus as a nice, well-meaning sort of fellow. I could imagine a more insecure person thinking, Gee, I thought they liked me better than that. It might help a bit when Peter declares him to be the Messiah, but I’m not sure how much Peter understands those words when he says them.
Of course it’s not just personal feedback that Jesus is looking for, here. He may well be asking in order to gauge how his message is coming across. But he also is asking because he wants his disciples to stop and think for a moment. He’s not just their friend. He’s not just a wonderworker. Who do they really believe him to be?
There are times when we all need to stop and ask that question for a moment – or for several moments. Who is Jesus, really? Who is God? For that matter, who am I? It’s not just something we engage in as an idle exercise, spinning theories or navel-gazing. It affects what we do and how we live. And if we’re going to answer these questions, we need honesty and perception. We need honesty in order to risk going places that may make us uncomfortable. And we need perception to see the bigger picture. There are things we say about ourselves and believe about ourselves that might not really be strictly accurate – we might wish they were true, but they aren’t. We may not be as nice and loving as we say we are; we might not care about a particular issue like we thought we did; and so on. When we assess how we spend our time and money, or what we say in our more unguarded moments, we might see otherwise.
And there are things we might say we believe about God and Jesus because we think it’s what we’re supposed to believe. We’ve absorbed ideas from church or culture and we think they’re the right way to understand God. But deep down – again, seen in how we spend our time and money, or how we treat other people or big decisions in our life – we might really believe otherwise.
I had an experience like that several years back, when I climbed my first mountain, Mt Shasta. I was a year out of seminary, soon to be ordained, and I had been operating with a sense of God as loving and personally invested in me and my vocation. I knew I was on the right path because everything went easily and people liked me. But in fact, my process toward ordination had not been as easy as I’d expected and my personal life was in disarray, and I was starting to wonder at this picture of God I had. So off I went to climb this mountain with some friends, though I wasn’t really in great shape to be doing that. Around 12,000 feet I wanted to die. I felt sick and exhausted by the altitude and the effort, and there were still 2,000 feet left to go. I sat there for a while, trying to recover, and looked around me at the rock and ice. And suddenly I realized that the mountain didn’t care that I was suffering. It was impassive, indifferent to whether I made it to the summit or not, because it had been there for thousands of years and would continue on for thousands more whether I lived or died. And somehow, strangely, I felt relieved by this. I got up and climbed the rest of the way, and then all the way back down, and felt great. Something had cleared. God wasn’t personally invested in my ordination; God wasn’t another one I might disappoint; it wasn’t about me after all. God was way bigger and fiercer and more wonderful than me and my little life. And realizing this freed me – I was ready to start putting that life back in order and say a real yes to what lay before me. Who I believed God to be started to align more closely with the truth of my experience.
We might really wish Jesus were a nice, well-meaning sort of fellow, there to make us feel ok. We might like to think that we are good people, always justified in what we say and do. But there’s not total truth in that. We know that following Jesus doesn’t always make everything turn out our way; God’s intentions for good may be utterly different than how we’d like to script them. And we know we aren’t always as wonderful as we wish – we might be pettier, or less perceptive, than we want to think. It’s no use pretending otherwise – because to do that limits us, and limits how God can act in our lives. So Jesus lays those questions before us: Who are you, really? And who do you believe me to be?
The transition you are all embarked on now is a good time for such questions. Four years have passed since you engaged in a search process. Who are you now? What is the same, and what is different? And who do you want to be going forward? God is involved and active here at this church. But the ways that is manifest are changing now, as you shift in leadership and vision. Who do you understand God to be now? How do you see God at work? The answers to these may not be easy and obvious. They may take some work, and reveal something different than you expected. But if you get closer to truth in the process, that is always the right direction to move in.
The gift is that if we are faithful, we live more and more into the truth all the time. Peter blurted out an answer to Jesus’ question, but he didn’t really understand what it meant until much later. Sticking close to Jesus as long as he could helped him really see and know who Jesus was, for him and for everyone. When we stay close to God ourselves, when we pray and listen and wade through the emotions to hear what is true, then we come to that truth as well – who we really are, and who God is. And then we really begin to know God’s love for us, and for all. Amen.