September 13, 2015

16th Sunday After Pentecost, Pastor Bradley Schmeling

Mark 8:27-38.  A few weeks ago after worship, I changed out of my vestments and started to go to the Gathering Place for coffee. On my way, I ran into a visitor. I stopped to chat, asked questions, told her about the church. After a couple of minutes, she said, “And who are you? Do you work here?” Apparently, without robes and up close, I look and sound different.

It’s become part of our ritual language to say, “We’re all getting to know one another at Gloria Dei.” It’s our way of saying that relationships matter. Church isn’t so much a private thing, a building where we come to be alone with God. Church is the practice of making community, of knowing and being known. Maybe, rather than just put on nametags, we should all ask one another, “So who are you anyway?”

One of our custodians, Duane, died on September 3rd. It was a sudden, tragic loss for his family and shock to our entire staff. Mostly, I interacted with Duane when he came into my office at the end of the day to empty the trash. We would do the Minnesota thing. We talked about the weather. Sometimes he asked about this or that program. Sometimes, I asked what he did over the weekend. Usually I was focused on going home, and I suspect he wanted to get his work done.

At the funeral, his family had a table of pictures and mementos of life. He spent most of his career as an architect for the City of St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department. In fact, he was responsible for the renovation of the Como Zoo.

I feel ashamed that I didn’t know that. Had I been too busy with the day’s tasks to ask the right questions? How many opportunities did I miss to say, “So who are you, anyway?” How many times did my assumptions about class or education shape the questions that I did ask? How could we work together and miss one another?

Jesus asks the question, “So who do you think I am?”

I think I’ve always heard that questions as if Jesus was running an old fashioned Sunday school class, waiting for the kids to give the right answer. How about “Elijah” or “John the Baptist,” or you’ve always got the kid that hedges his bets, “Ummmm, one of the prophets?” Everyone ventures a guess until Peter hits the nail on the head, “You are the messiah.”

Of course, he totally misunderstands what it means to be the messiah. He assumes that it means being number one, maybe a baseball cap that says, “Make Judah Great Again,” certainly a chance to run those stupid Romans out of the capital. It never occurred to him that the way of the messiah was about letting someone else be first, or welcoming the stranger, or interpreting your enemies actions with charity and kindness. It didn’t occur to him that the mystery of new life is found in being last, not first; not in gaining the whole world but in losing it, dying and being raised from the dead.

I’m not sure Jesus wanted a right answer, but a chance to draw his friends more deeply into his life. It wasn’t a test question. It was a relationship question. He wanted for them to know this deep wisdom that was running through him. In many ways, this text from Mark shows us what God is like: ever inviting us more deeply in genuine life.

Perhaps this is the heart of what Christians teach; what we invite our children to learn as they begin another Sunday School year; what we want our confirmation students to understand: namely that the heart of God beats in the heart of Jesus, and we are the people drawn into that relationship. We are invited to be shaped by the love of God; held by it; forgiven by it; challenged by it; changed by it. We are asked to let go of all those things that keep us from entering into genuine life, allowing us to stand in solidarity with those who will never be first or worthy or acceptable.

We live in a world that wants to throw out everyone who doesn’t look the same, or close the borders against anyone who might dilute our purity. The cross of Jesus Christ stands against that world. The heart of God is open, drawing us together, not pushing us apart, urging us to risk knowing and being known.

It’s true we are always at working getting to know one another. It’s also true that we are always at work knowing God. Likely, it will take us a lifetime, and probably a resurrection into a next lifetime, to really get the wideness and the depth of God’s love for us. It took Peter an awfully long time. Yet Jesus never stopped providing him spaces to go deeper, to see beyond himself, to see beyond even the grave, to become new again.

Of course, the good news is that God provides us with ever-new ways of going deeper. We rally around that news. Sometimes, even the most difficult things that we face become mysterious ways of growing into a new fullness, a new life. And maybe that’s the most profound way that God works: in our dying, in our devastation, in our terror at facing what is before us, God manages to bring new life. God’s promise is to raise us up, to give us what we could not do for ourselves—a life that is never outside the love of God.

So who are you? Nothing less, nothing more, than a beautiful and loved child of God. That’s the place where we come alive.