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Earlier sermons for

August 17, 2003: "Eyes on Jesus and minds on mission!"
August 31, 2003: "Tradition or Traditionalism?"
September 7, 2003: "Credo: Be doers and not hearers only"
September 14, 2003: "Who do YOU say that I am?"
"Eyes on Jesus and minds on mission!"
Proper 15B 2003 (August 17) John 6:53-59

One of the interesting things about life in general and the church in particular is how we can be upset by things that in the end really don't matter. Especially in relation and comparison to other things.

The Reverend Howard Edington, Pastor of the Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Texas tells this story in his book, Downtown Church:

Late one Sunday night, as my uncle, Andrew Edington (college president and Bible teacher) was returning home, he stopped at a roadside diner in a Texas hill country town to snag a quick cup of coffee. As is typical of all the Edington males, he quickly used all the sugar packets the waitress had left on the table for him, but wanted more. As the waitress came near his table again, he called out, "I want some more sugar, please." The crusty old gal defiantly put her hands on her hips, leaned over toward him and snapped, "Stir what you got!"

Stir what you got! Edington goes on to say that when he moved to the Shandon Church in Columbia, it was a church in desperate need of more property for parking and expansion. Can you believe it? The man who owned the property adjacent to the church had been irritated years earlier by the church bells and had sworn then that the church would never get his property.*

That would have seemed a little far-fetched but for one thing. St Lukes, Wellington, in Alexandria, was my home parish during the ordination process. Right across Fort Hunt Road from the church was an abandoned house. If you know anything about real estate values in that part of Fairfax County, you know how valuable that property was.

The house was brick, had been well built, but was now almost tumbledown like so many of the old farmhouses we see around here with trees growing inside them and through the roof. The yard was not merely overgrown; it had become such a wilderness that except for the walk to the front door where one could see the door to the house, it would be impossible to know that a once nice house was there.

It was an eyesore and an attractive nuisance, so the vestry of St Lukes decided to buy it. They planned to use it as a rectory or, if not for that, for a rental property. But they would repair and restore it to good working condition and make it attractive.

When they contacted the owner, however, they were met with a blast. He didnt like any of his neighbors to begin with, he said. And furthermore, he moved out of the house because the new St Lukes Church building was ugly and the real eyesore in the community. It filled his entire view from the front with ugliness. So he had purposely moved out of his house across the street from the church and intentionally planned for it to become an eyesore as long as the church building stood and he lived. And so it is to this day, I believe. Ill have to look and see next time Im up that way to see which event has occurred first, if indeed it has.

But in comparison to other things, such aggravations as these are not as significant as they might seem at first or at some time.

When I first began my study of our gospel lesson for today, I thought briefly, Oh, no! Not another lesson on the Sacrament of Holy Communion! How many times can I preach on the Bread of Life or the Body and Blood of Christ without saying the same things over and over again. In fact one member of the Thursday morning Lectionary Study Group was going to ask his congregation to raise their hands: Was it three? Four? Five? Six? I decided not to do that, because I was away last Sunday and thanks again to the Senior Warden who did a great job by all accounts I have heard.

But the Gospel is an amazing thing. The more we wrestle with it; the more we struggle with it; the more we apply our hearts and minds and souls to be open to the message it has for us at any given point, the insight will come. And so it was.

It seems to me that Jesus is telling his disciples to stay focused on the important things. And he was telling the congregation in the synagogue to stay focused on what was important. Stay focused on me, he said. Thats what the Bread and wine, my body and my blood, in the sacrament are all about. Whether you believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, Real Presence, Real Absence, or merely a memorial in the sacrament the whole idea of the Gospels is to tell us to stay focused on what is important. Abide in me, however you do it. Stay focused on me.

We all have played or watched sports. In team sports there usually is a bench of players waiting to be called on to go in. This is true of ball sports: football, baseball, volleyball, soccer, and the like. By the time I got to the Military Academy at West Point, I was so outclassed that making the football team as a player was not in the cards for me. But I did become the manager And as the manager, I was able to watch the players on the bench and what the coaches were saying to them.

It boiled down to this: Keep your eyes on the ball and your mind on the game. In short, stay focused on what is important.

All of this is by way of saying I think I need to say a little bit more about the General Convention just concluded in Minneapolis in light of the Gospel for today. And not just this short but very important passage but the whole of the Gospel writings.

Two Sundays ago I laid out for us the two major divisive issues that General Convention would address: One was approval or disapproval of the consecration of Canon Gene Robinson, Bishop elect of New Hampshire and an openly gay man. The other was authorization to the Standing Liturgical Commission to begin the development of a liturgy for the blessing of same sex unions.

The outcome was pretty much what I expected it would be. Approval was given by a majority of the bishops with jurisdiction that is, diocesan bishops like our own Bishop Lee, for Canon Robinson's consecration. There never was much doubt that the choice of the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire would be honored, although some of the bishops voting yes might have had to hold their noses while they were doing it. I understand this feeling from my work on our own Commission on Ministry. Our decisions to recommend an aspirant for postulancy and admission to the formal ordination process and Seminary are rarely unanimous in the beginning although at the end we all sign the letter to the Bishop.

General Convention did NOT authorize the Standing Liturgical Commission to begin the development of rites for the blessing of same sex unions. Despite what the blaring screaming headlines in the Washington Post, the Times Dispatch, and the discredited New York Times might have claimed.

And no one, not those most vehemently in favor of such authorization, equated the blessing of a union to the blessing of a marriage. Quite a different thing entirely. At most the resolution acknowledged that in some places some people are blessing same sex unions anyway and we choose not to throw them out of the Church. We choose to agree to continue to disagree because we believe that God loves us all despite all of us being equally sinful when we in our time appear before the Throne of Grace.

The extremists on both sides of these issues of sexuality have lost their focus on the important thing. I am appalled at the use of Old Testament and Pauline proof texts taken out of all context and hurled like thunderbolts by those opposed at those who are adamantly in favor. And I am appalled by those in favor who think not deeply about what Jesus is saying in the Gospels and hurl sociological and suspect polling data like thunderbolts at those who oppose them.

There is no need to go into a lengthy exegesis of all this. But let us remember what Jesus himself said in the gospels from the Old Testament. (Mark 12:28ff)

Jesus said this during a debate that in its intensity was like the debates at General Convention except more important. This debate was about whether or not there was a resurrection as well as other things. And proof texts were being hurled back and forth like thunderbolts. Then Saint Mark records this:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"

Jesus answered, "The first is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and besides him there is no other; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love ones neighbor as oneself,--this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

There is no other commandment greater than these. Love God with all we have. And love our neighbors all of them regardless of race, color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation; love them like ourselves.

At the Reverend Stan Ramsey's funeral yesterday a senior priest and I talked about how the Church has faced up to similar crises: the ordination of women -- Fort Worth, Eau Claire, Dallas, and a few other dioceses still haven't gotten aboard, but they've stayed in the Church. And especially the difficulty with the new 1979 Prayer Book which did lead to a schism. In fact here in this parish about 18 years ago, in the middle of a stormy vestry meeting about using it here, the senior warden got up and stormed out, taking several vestry persons and some others with him. They not only left the parish, they left the Church.

The senior priest told me that he had had several stormy vestry meetings in his northern Virginia parish. At the last and stormiest, the issue was settled when his matriarch stood up and demanded that everyone listen to what she had to say. And she said this: "No matter what Prayer Book we use, nothing, absolutely nothing will keep me from Jesus!"

As I thought about these things and the debate over General Convention, I thought about all the good things in mission and outreach we do here for our neighbors in our volunteer work lists so lengthy that I'm bound to leave several out and the mission teams from Richmond who came here and gave significant help to our neighbors in Lancaster, Northumberland, and Matthews Counties, laboring in the heat to build wheelchair ramps and paint houses. About twenty of them in all. And I wondered what we could accomplish for our neighbors if all the time and energy spent in these debates at General Convention and afterward could have been focused on the main thing.

And so like the coaches of my youth, I thought "Let's keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission and everything else begins to seem insignificant."

Let's keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission and we, too, might be not far from the kingdom of God.


* "Stir what you got" from an InterNet source
"Tradition or Traditionalism?"
Proper 17B 2003 (August 31) Adapted from Selected Sermons for that day by the Very Reverend Charles Hoffacker at link below


The conversation we heard about in the Gospel that was just read with its references to religious hand washing and dish washing may seem, well, a little remote from our concerns here on this Labor Day weekend in the year 2003. But let's hear the story in a different way: how it might happen in our time. The Very Revd Charles Hoffacker tells this story in Selected Sermons for today:

One day, in a small Southern city, a group of God-fearing, Bible-believing people came up to Jesus to ask him something. "We've noticed, they said, "that when your disciples go to high school football games, they don't take part when a lot of us spontaneously say the Lord's Prayer. They don't even mumble it. What gives?"

Jesus replied, "It's attitudes like that that make me think I should have copyrighted that prayer. You just don't get it! First of all, if you plan to do something than it's not spontaneous. That's an abuse of language. But that's not the only abuse that's going on. I know you can pray anywhere: in church, at home, in your car, even at a football game. Believe me, I know. You should hear some of those prayers from the coaches and players!"

"But I suspect that some of you like to boom forth the prayer I gave you, not so much because you want to talk to the Father, but because you want to look good in your own eyes. That's what I was getting at when I gave some of the Pharisees a hard time for praying on street corners. It wasn't the location. Street corner, football field, cathedral -- it's all the same. The problem is with your attitude."

"Also, I didn't give you the Lord's Prayer for you to shout it at some public event and maybe just think you're better than the people of other religions or those of no religion who feel shut out of a public school football game because you want to show that there are a lot of Christians in attendance."

"Careful! You're skating on thin ice! It may just be that some of those people of other religions and of no religion will end up leading the parade into the kingdom of God, together with the prostitutes and tax collectors I talked about two thousand years ago, with folks like you bringing up the rear, if you make it at all. Grace works in mighty strange ways. And anyway the problem is not no prayer in the schools; the problem is no prayer at home."

Maybe that's what Jesus would say if today's Gospel took place now rather than back then. Certainly the question underlying the story is as alive as ever. Like the Jews in the time of Jesus, Christians today are a people with a rich traditions of spiritual practice. When it comes to this tradition, how can we keep from "majoring in the minors?" How can we keep the main thing the main thing?

How can we keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission? How can we live the good news of Jesus so that it remains good news for us and for people around us, whether or not they are Christians? How can devotion remain beautiful theology rather than turning into ugly and exclusivist ideology? How indeed?

Jesus criticized a portion of his own community for paying God lip service, exalting human precepts, abandoning divine commandments. Like a beam of laser light, he cut through to the real issue: their hearts are far from God.

Rather than practicing a spirituality that changed them through grace, this segment tried to impose an ideology that made other people conform to their hard-and-fast principles. Their concern was not heaven's purposes, but their own power and control. Such misuse of religion remains forever a possibility. And so we must consider the true purpose of Christian devotion. Hoffacker notes one possibility of a faithful answer to this question.

The entire apparatus of Christian devotion -- the Lord's Prayer and the Great Litany, rosaries and revivals, Prayer Book and Hymnal, icons and incense, Bible study and Sunday school, silent retreats and Cursillo reunions, Gospel music and Gregorian chant, public liturgy and private prayer, sacraments and sermons, holy water and holy rolling, giving thanks at a birth and praying at a death -- the entire apparatus of Christian devotion, in its diversity and complexity, serves one great, overarching purpose that scripture and tradition explain in their frequent references to the heart, the core of the human person.

Christian devotion is meant to help gain and maintain a new heart, a heart of warmth and not a heart of ice, a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, a heart fill with joy and not anger, a heart that is alive not dead, a heart that is compassionate not selfish, a heart that is large, not small, a heart that is hospitable not judgmental. Christian devotion in its myriad forms is all about softening the heart, preventing it from becoming hard, keeping it tender. It's about, in a spiritual sense, having a healthy heart. Its about drawing from the wellsprings of our love of God to go out and love our neighbor with our work and words.

It is of such a heart that St. Isaac the Syrian speaks in a passage that has become popular in our time, thirteen centuries after he wrote it:

When someone with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures and looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears because of the overwhelming compassion that presses on his heart. The heart of such a one grows tender, and he cannot endure to hear of or to look upon any injury, even the smallest suffering, inflicted upon anything in creation. Therefore this person never ceases to pray with tears even for the dumb animals, even for the enemies of truth and for all who do harm to it, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart after the example of God.

The heart of which St. Isaac speaks is compassionate, hospitable, vast, able to welcome even cold-blooded animals, even enemies of truth. The purpose of Christian devotion is to invite God to create and maintain such a heart in each one of us. Therefore, when we assess, as we must, the use of some element of Christian tradition in a particular circumstance, the question to ask is: Does this practice, in this circumstance, contribute to a living, healthy, compassionate heart, or does it not?

This central question takes precedence over other questions we may prefer to answer, such as: Is this practice ancient? Is it contemporary? Do I like it? Will it increase church attendance? Does it make me feel in control? No, the real question has to do with whether or not hearts are made and kept compassionate.

Here is an insight from the great Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan that may prove helpful. Pelikan distinguishes between tradition and traditionalism in this way: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.

Weve all heard the old chestnut about How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? My favorite answer is four: One to hold the ladder, one to change the bulb, and two to go on about how much they were going to miss the old bulb.

When I first became an Episcopalian, my Presbyterian and former Baptist mother said to me, "Well, you know, the only way Episcopalians think they can go to Hell is if they use the wrong fork at dinner."

A personal experience here about tradition and traditionalism: About nine years ago, for a baptism, I moved the baptismal font from the under the lectern into the middle of the aisle where it is now. It looked good there and seemed to reflect the emphasis on baptism that the church was regaining. Nothing was said about the change but by the healing service on Wednesday morning, it was back under the lectern. I changed it back for Sunday. For about a year this was the most mobile heavy marble baptismal font in all of Christendom. But after a year I walked in for the healing service one Wednesday morning and it was still in the middle of the aisle where it has generally remained except for funerals when we move it to bring in the coffin.

Like some of the contemporaries of Jesus, we are mired in traditionalism when our spiritual inheritance is not used to open our hearts to becoming more compassionate. This is the dead faith of the living. But when we use that wonderful spiritual inheritance left to us by preceding generations for its true purpose, then tradition lives and flows and opens us to greater life. Our hearts become larger; more compassionate. This is the living faith of the dead, or, rather, the living faith of those who have died and now live forever because their hearts have come to resemble the heart of God.

Jesus taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing. And he sent the Holy Spirit to pour into our hearts his greatest gift, love, the heart of the Summary of the Law and prophets, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before him.
Isaac the Syrian quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1979), p.157.]

"Credo: Be doers of the world and not hearers only."
Proper 18B 2003 (September 7) James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37

"Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."

With these words, Saint James, by tradition the brother of Jesus, sets the right perspective on the practice of our Christian faith. The introduction to the letter of Saint James in the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version puts it, somewhat paraphrased, this way:

Many of the sayings in the letter seem to echo the sayings of Jesus in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke the synoptics. This letter is ascribed to the authority of James the brother of the Lord, a powerful authority indeed. In this letter, James is trying to correct the false understanding of the relationship between faith and works that those who were quoting Paul out of context were using as their authority for faith alone, divorced from works. Quoting out of context doesnt that sound familiar today in the aftermath of General Convention? The more things change, the more they are really the same.

In any case, Saint Paul would certainly agree that Christian life and practice of faith should be expressed in works of charity, what Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia about the importance of faith working through love For in Christthe only thing that counts is faith working through love.For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It was Paul, who with Barnabas, after all, who took up a collection for famine relief to take to the besieged and poor Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem and Judea. What James was doing was to correct a distorted and sloganizing Paulinism which influenced Christians to neglect their obligations to aid their poverty-stricken and suffering brothers and sisters all their neighbors.

It is the word doers from the verb form to do that is the powerful part of this passage from James. It is true, I think, in English that this simple two letter word has powerful impact. It is like be. To be is to have the capability to do; or more succinctly, to be is to do. In concept they are intertwined. In the beginning, because God is, he could do. "Let there be light," said God. And there was light. And when all was done, God saw that it was good.
The verb to do, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes down to us through several sources from the ancient Sanskrit and Indo European sources of most language. The Old English form was don in the Germanic line of descent which originated in the Old Teutonic forms of verbal stem dae- and do- from the indo European stems dhe- and dho-., meaning to place, put, or set basic forms of doing.

The parallel stem from the Indo European verbal stem forms is the Latin verb do. D O. Among many other meanings such as to offer, give, grant, bestow; to hand over, commit, devote; do also means to hold, to put, to cause, to bring about. All of these are forms of doing.

It is interesting that with regard to Saint James' doers of the word versus hearers of the word only, the Latin colloquialism Do verba, literally to give words only is colloquial for cheating. As those hearers only in James time cheated by hiding behind faith alone and not doing for their neighbors who were in need.

Most interesting to me is the way in which doing and doers of the word -- and faith -- are so closely intertwined with being in the Latin word credo. From credo comes our word creed. The Nicene and Apostles Creeds are the most basic summaries of our faith, the earliest codification of what the Word meant in terms of belief or faith. Credo means I believe. And in the Latin Vulgate of the Mass of the Middle Ages in the West, the three parts of the Nicene Creed began with Credo: Credo in Deo Pater. Credo in Hiesus Filius. Credo in Deo Spiritus Sanctus.

But what about being. Ah, interesting. The Cre part of credo comes from the Indo-European forms of Cra and cre, extremely ancient language forms that mean heart. From cra come the more physical English words for heart: cardiologist. Cardiac arrest. And so forth.

But from cre comes that which is not physical but reflecting the belief that one's being and beliefs were in the heart. Hence taken in its most primitive meaning, credo means to hold in the heart. To put in the heart. To place in the heart. To give in the heart. To devote in the heart. To commit in the heart. All things which are of the essence of being as believing and hearing Christians. And of the essence of doing as practicing Christians.

Saint Paul heard the Word of the Lord on the Road from Jericho to Damascus and was knocked down and blinded by its power. He was sent on to Damascus where his sight was restored. From that moment on, Paul went about the Greco-Roman world preaching the Word to all who would hear and doing the task that had been set before him.

Jesus was a doer. "He has done everything well; he even causes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak!"

The Reverend Robert Salzgeberger tells this story about a friend of his who lives in an area of the country where there are many Native American Indian reservations, attended a church conference years ago. One of the workshops that the friend attended at the conference concerned the plight of the Native American Indian population as a minority group and how they have been completely forgotten. He decided to attend this particular workshop because he happened to live in an area where there were many reservations. His attitude at the time was that he simply wanted to learn more about the issue. He did not necessarily desire to do anything about the problem.

Then, right smack in the middle of the seminar, a well-known member of the American Indian Movement AIM -- entered the room where they were gathered and threw a brick in the center of the meeting table. The crashing monolith startled the assembly. The man from AIM said to the people that all they did was talk and study, study and talk, but they never really did a darn thing about the prevailing issues.

The friend was certainly not impressed by this man's overt action. In fact, he was a bit offended. But when he returned home he couldn't get the incident out of his mind. He kept on asking himself, "Well, what can I do about it? I'm only one person." Gradually his ears were opened and one day he decided to speak. In fear and trepidation, he drove his car north to one of the nearby reservations to visit with a local chief. And that was just the beginning of a 25-year ministry to Native American Indians in the area of the country in which he lives.

Salzgeberger notes: My friend has been very instrumental and active in the planning and implementation of WIRC (the Wisconsin Indian Resource Council). He has also been involved in Operation Black Dirt, a corporation established to incubate Native American Indian-owned small businesses. Today, my friend tells me that Christ caused his deaf ears to hear and then gave him the courage to speak on behalf of the American Indian population. It has not been easy for my friend. As you can well imagine, his inclusive actions have caused him to be ostracized from former friends and associates. But he tells me that it has been worth it because, as he puts it, "I was dumb but now I can speak God's truth."*

Is this not how things like the Northern Neck Free Health Clinic, the Interfaith Service Council of Lancaster and Northumberland Counties, Virginia Quality of Life, Home Delivered Meals, Habitat for Humanity, the Haven, and the short term mission teams from Richmond who came here to work with us and with Hands across Matthews is this not the way these things come about are caused to happen, the carrying of Sundays word into Mondays world? We hear, we believe, we do we become doers of the Word. We keep our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission and we get on with the tasks God has given us to do in our own time in this place.

One last story from Salzgeberger: Telemachus was a monk who lived in Asia Minor about the year AD 400. During his life the gladiatorial games were very popular. The gladiators were usually slaves or political prisoners who were condemned to fight each other unto death for the amusement of the crowd. People were fascinated by the sight of spurting blood.

Telemachus was very much disturbed that the Christian Emperor Honorius sponsored these games and that so many people who called themselves Christians went to see them. What could be further from the Spirit of Christ than the horrible cruelty of the gladiatorial games? The church was opposed to the games and spoke out against them, but most people would not listen because they were deaf to God's unbounded message of love.

Telemachus realized that talking about this evil was not enough. It was time to do something. But what could he accomplish - one lone monk against the whole Roman Empire? He was unknown. He had no power. And the games had been entrenched in Roman life for centuries. Nothing that he could possibly do would ever make a difference.

For a long time Telemachus agonized about the problem. Finally he could not live with himself any longer. For the integrity of his own soul he decided to obey Christ's Spirit within him, regardless of the consequences. He set out for Rome.

When Telemachus entered the city, the people he met had gone mad with excitement. "To the Coliseum! The games are about to begin!"

Telemachus followed the crowd. Soon he was seated among all the other people. Far away in a special place he saw the emperor.

The gladiators came out into the center of the arena. Everybody was tense. Everybody was quiet. Now the two strong young men drew their swords. The fight was on! One of them would probably die in a few minutes. Who would it be?

But just at that moment, Telemachus rose from his seat and ran into the arena. He held high the cross of Christ and threw himself between the two combatants.

"In the name of our Master," he cried, "Stop fighting!" The two men hesitated. Nothing like this had ever happened before. They did not quite know what to do.

But the spectators were furious. Telemachus had robbed them of their anticipated entertainment! They yelled wildly and stampeded toward the center of the arena. They became a mob. With sticks and stones they beat Telemachus to death.

Far down there in the arena lay the little battered body of the monk. Suddenly the mob grew quiet. A feeling of revulsion at what they had done swept over them. Their once deaf ears sensed a stirring. Emperor Honorius rose and left the coliseum. The people followed him. Abruptly the games were over.

Honorius sensed the mood of the crowd. His ears too were opened. He issued an edict forbidding all future gladiatorial games. Honorius' ears had been opened to the violence and dehumanization of the games. As a result he was able to speak.

So it was that in about the year A.D. 404, because one individual, filled with the love of Christ, dared to say no, all gladiatorial games ceased.*

"Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."


* The two Robert Salzgeberger stories are from his sermon, The Spiritual Organ of Corti. He credits the story of Telemachus to Peace Be With You by Cornelia Lehn, Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kansas, "What Can One Person Accomplish?" p. 27. Previously adapted from a story in Courage In Both Hands by Allen A. Hunter (Fellowship of Reconciliation, 21 Audubon Ave., New York,

"Who do YOU say that I am?"
Proper 19B 2003 (September 14) Mark 8:27-38

Elie Wiesel, in his work, The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966) relates a wonderful Hasidic tale that serves as an apt prelude to todays Gospel reading.

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and then the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go into the forest and say: "Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: "I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient." And it was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and it must be sufficient." And it was sufficient. (1)

Tell the story. Thats what Christians are called to do. To tell the story of who Jesus is. Every day of our lives Jesus asks, Who do people say that I am. And, of course, the answer we give to that question can depend in large part on who we say that he is, by our witness and by our lives.

It really is interesting that the infamous Jesus Seminar, in the current quest for the historical Jesus, can't come up with answers that are significantly different in tone and tenor than the answers Saint Mark records the disciples giving that day on the dusty roads connecting the villages of Caesarea Philippi. They use more up to date language in addition to prophet: zealot, radical social reformer, visionary, sage, holy man. And they are convinced, by collegial vote, that Jesus did NOT ask the most important question, "And you: who do YOU say that I am?" I think that they may well be afraid that Jesus really was who he said he was.

The famous existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, called the response of Saint Peter the true beginnings of Christianity: Peter, who alone believes, somewhat dimly, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah. (2)

But we know the end of the story. We know that it did NOT end on a shameful death on a bloody Cross on a hill near Jerusalem called Golgotha. We can tell the story that it did NOT end in a tomb in a garden. We can tell the story that Jesus was and is more than sage, more than prophet, more than just a teacher or rabbi. More than just a healer. Jesus was all of these things and much much more. In Saint Matthew's Gospel Peter gets it more nearly right: "You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Probably as close as Peter could come at that point Peter didn't know the end of the story yet.

We can tell the story in our words and by our witness and lives. And pray that it is sufficient.

But how do we hear the story? How do we receive and perceive who Jesus really is? The danger, of course, is putting the divine Jesus, Son of God, in a very human box where he'll be safe or rather, where we'll be safe from him. Or answer his question of "Who do you say that I am?" by using our own human images.

Sister Rachael Hosmer, of the Order of the Holy Cross, was teaching at The General Seminary in New York. One night she had a dream about ordering from the Sears Catalogue. Only this was no ordinary catalogue. In it, she could order the Jesus of her choice.

The dream flowed on: there was Jesus as a seminary professor, with pipe and tweed jacket.

There was Jesus the farmer, with calluses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails.

There was a suburban, churchgoing Jesus in a suit and tie.

There was an Hispanic Jesus, and an African-American Jesus. There was a feminist Jesus, who enabled bent women to stand up.

In her dream, Sr. Rachael chose one and ordered that Jesus. She received a Jesus, but it was different from the one she had ordered. She ordered another Jesus, and again she got a Jesus different from the one she had chosen. This happened again and again.

Every time she received a Jesus who differed from the one she had ordered. And every time, it really was Jesus whom she was given.

The message of her dream became clear to her the next day. If she started where she was, with what she really longed for, Jesus would come into her life. And he was always different from her expectations, always wonderfully surprising. As the Voice from the Burning Bush told Moses, Jesus in her dream would be who he would be. (3)

One of the hardest questions in the story comes next. Jesus asks: "What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?" (Mk. 8:36-37).

In other words, how do we do and live the story? James Emery White, in Rethinking the Church, tells this story with some following observations.

You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk--you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice--you just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to my self, What a country!"

Smirnoff was joking but we often make the assumption about Christian Transformation that people change instantly at salvation. Some traditions call it repentance and renewal. Some call it sanctification of the believer. Whatever you call it most traditions expect some quick fix to sin. According to this belief, when someone gives his or her life to Christ, there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character. We go to church as if we are going to the grocery store: Powdered Christian. Just add water and disciples are born not made.

Unfortunately, there is no such powder and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations. A study has found that only 11 percent of churchgoing teenagers have a well-developed faith, rising to only 32 percent for churchgoing adults. Why? Because true life change only begins at salvation, takes more than just time, is about training, trying, suffering, and even dying. (4) And telling the story. Hearing the story. Doing and living the story. Over and over again.

Who do you say that I am? This is the question that confronts us today and every day of our lives. Wherever we turn in life we are faced with this question and the implications of it in our lives and practice of faith.

The Reverend Brett Blair noted in 1999 how throughout the ages various individuals have attempted to answer that question posed by Jesus. Ernest Renan, a French writer, answered it by saying that Jesus was a sentimental idealist. Bruce Barton, an American businessman, said that who Jesus was the greatest salesman who ever lived. William Hirsch, a Jewish writer, responded that Jesus conformed to the clinical picture of paranoia. A musical drama was performed some years ago that answered this question by featuring Jesus as Jesus Christ Superstar. I took the Youth Group of St John's Cornwall to see it on Broadway. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German theologian, referred to Jesus as the "man for others."

The Gospel writers also attempted in their own fashion to answer this most fundamental question. They bestowed upon him numerous titles and claims: Son of God, Son of man, Divine physician, king, prophet, bridegroom, light of the world, the door, the vine, high priest, the firstborn of creation, the bright and morning star, and Alpha and Omega.

All of these were attempts to answer this question posed by Jesus. But these are attempts made by others. Jesus is more concerned with what your answer is than what their answer is. Martin Luther, another German theologian, wrote: "I care not whether he be Christ, but that he be Christ for you." (5)

C.S. Lewis, in his book "Mere Christianity," among many things he said about Jesus, said this about our Lord: "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us." (6)

Of the historical Jesus Albert Schweitzer writes, "He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow me!" and sets us to tasks, which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is." (7)

Tell the story. Hear the story. Do and live the story. And keep on telling, hearing, and doing and living the story.


1. Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966), quoted in Synthesis for 14 September 2003
2. Tillich quoted in Ibid.
3. Sister Hosmer story in Ibid.
4. Smirnoff story and observations from a sermon by Brett Blair, Why must we carry a cross, eSermons.com, as adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Baker, 1997, p. 55-57.
5. Brett Blair, www.esermons.com, 1999
6. CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, quoted by Brett Blair in a sermon entitled Jesus: Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Lord, christianglobe.com.
7. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (New York: MacMillan, 1945), p 403

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