Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture

12th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 16:13-20

Maybe you’ve been in the same situation.  You’re sitting in a circle with a group of people that you don’t know very well, if at all.  The leader asks, “Tell us your most embarrassing moment.” Your mind races.  “Do I tell the real most embarrassing story?  Or do I think of something more ‘awkward,’ something that can make the group laugh.”

One by one, people answer.  You’re really not listening to their responses.  You’re practicing your story in your mind.  Suddenly, there’s a silence.  You look up, and everyone in the circle is looking at you.  It’s your turn.

Time to bring yourself into the circle.

The gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us if the disciples are sitting in a neat circle as Jesus quizzes them, “Who do people say that I am?”  It’s an easy question because you get to answer in other voices.  THEY say you’re John the Baptist.  THEY say you’re one of the prophets.  I even heard someone say that you’re Elijah.

But then it turns awkward, “Who do YOU say that I am?”  Now there’s some skin in the game.  The question sounds like a question about Jesus, but really it’s a question about their own standpoint, their own ground.

Peter blurts out, “You are the messiah, the anointed and chosen one, God’s very own, the beloved one, the type for what a human can be: filled and overflowing with God.

It’s interesting to note where they’re having the conversation.  It’s in Caesarea Philippi, a city expanded as an outpost for Rome in the occupied Galilean territory.  The Jewish people suffered greatly under the violence of Roman occupation. In the center of the city, Herod the Great built a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus.  On the statue, the inscription read, Divi filius, “son of God.”

As the answers made their way around the circle, something came over Peter.  In the shadow of the emperor’ image, he was looking at the new image for what life could be, a new WAY.  There was the way of Rome, intimidation and violence; the way of extracting wealth from those already at the bottom of the ladder; the way of cruelty and personality cults?  The way of power over; the way of placing the winners at the center.  Or the way of Jesus?  The way of humility and generosity; the way of sacrifice and solidarity with those at the bottom of the ladder?  The way of kindness, giving up your seat for someone who has never been invited to the table?  The way of justice for the hungry, and for those who simply don’t fit?

Indeed, this IS the rock on which the church is built.  The way of Jesus is the way of those who who dance to his lead.

Peter’s moment is iconic in the sense that this moment happens again and again to the community of Jesus.

We may be gathering our circles in different places or situations.  Maybe not in the shadow of a Roman temple, but in a time of political chaos; a time of isolation and loneliness; in a time of medical risk; in a time when injustice is nakedly evident.

What does it mean to be in this circle with Jesus right now?   Our “confession,” so to speak, isn’t so much an intellectual answer about Jesus, providing some orthodox understanding of the two natures of Christ.  A “confession” is something that comes when we’re at the moment when we simply have to answer a new question about what we’re standing on.

I’ve heard the question in these last several months. So many of the things that used to give me some sense that I was on track, or faithful, or even loved, changed in March.  I know a lot of us have been left reeling by all the changes.  It’s as if we all have our moment in the circle, “What we stood on yesterday, relied on, counted on now seems shaky. Where am I going to go? Who will people say that I am?”

It’s always a precarious moment.  I love the picture that Lauren drew for us today.  There’s the church, built on the rock, balanced so carefully.  It’s probably how we all feel; about ready to fall off, to tip over, to crash down.  But something in the strength of that rock, that stone of love, promises to hold up the house.

Every crisis is like a death and resurrection at the same time. If we’re willing to step into the circle, we can let go of one way to discover a deeper way–a more holy and lifegiving way.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of one of her patients:

[He] survived three major surgeries in five weeks described himself as “born again.” When I asked him about this, he told me that his experience had challenged all of his ideas about life. Everything he had thought true had turned out to be merely belief and had not withstood the terrible events of recent weeks. He was stripped of all that he knew and left only with the unshakeable conviction that life itself was holy. It upheld him like stone and upholds him still because it has been tested by fire. At the depths of the most unimaginable vulnerability he has discovered that we live not by choice but by grace. And that life itself is a blessing.[1]

The stone that upholds us in the end isn’t our confession, or our choice, or our own amazing smart answers. Our bedrock in the One who sits in the circle with us, who gazes into the very depth of our being, who knows us, and forgives us; who delights in us, and then loves us into blessing.

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.

Blessed are you, Owen John, newly baptized.

Blessed are you, online watchers of this sermon.  Blessed are you, who sit in the circle of suffering and loss.  Blessed are you, living in these days under the shadow of so many ways that oppress and limit.

Blessed are you, for now it is our turn.  Who, indeed, will people say that we are?

[1] Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (Riverhead Books: 2001), 325–326.  As quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily email devotion, Week Thirty-three, “Order, Disorder, Reorder.  Part II.”