Friday, August 22, 2014

Connecting Lips and Lives (Aug 24 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 21, Aug 24 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Exodus 1.8-2.10; Ps 124; Rom 12.1-8; Mt 16.13-20

Connecting Lips and Lives

Who do you say I am?

There are two ways of answering Jesus’ question:  The first is with our lips and the second is with our lives. 

On Sundays, here at St. Albans, here this morning, we answer with our lips.  We sing songs that proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Emmanuel.  We confess our faith in the words of the creed, stating that Jesus is God’s only Son, our Lord.  In our prayers and our reflections we proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, God Incarnate, the second person of the Trinity.  In a whole variety of ways on a Sunday morning, our lips answer, as Peter’s did, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

And then, in about 45 minutes from now, we will leave this place, and we’ll go out and do our stuff and work our jobs and live our lives, and when we do that, we will answer the question once more, this time with our lives and our everyday actions.

Who do you say I am?

Now it’s important that we answer with our lips, which I suppose is why Jesus asks the question of his disciples.  Naming things, articulating what we think, understanding by putting things into words, these are all important for us.  Proclaiming what we believe in words helps to shape us and make us who we are.  It’s connected with what Paul is urging the Romans to do in the letter we read this morning when he encourages them to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

But, as is often said, actions speak louder than words.  An example?  Suppose you were to ask me “who are you?” and I was to answer, “I am a father.”  Then suppose you were to watch me for the rest of the week.  You might expect, based on my answer, that I would love my children, spend time with them, care for them, enjoy their presence and so on.  But what if you observed that I actually spent little time with my kids, I avoided them as much as possible, I spoke harshly to them when I couldn’t avoid them, and I always seemed to be unhappy when they were around.  You might, after observing me for that week, think that there was a disconnect, a disconnect between the way I answered the question “who am I?” with my lips and the way I answered it with my life, a disconnect between what I profess and my everyday actions.

When Jesus asks us “Who do you say I am?” is there a similar disconnect that happens between the way we answer with our lips and the way we answer with the everyday actions of our lives?

Because when we get right down to it, the question that Jesus asks is not a question about doctrine.  Jesus doesn’t want to know if we’ve got the creed memorized, or if we can put him into the right theological category.  The question he asks is more about discipleship than doctrine.  When he asks Peter and the others, ‘who do you say I am?’ he could just as easily have asked, “So why are you guys following me anyway?” 

Because though the question is, on the one hand, a question about Jesus’ identity, it is also, perhaps even more importantly, a question about our identity.  Who am I?  I am a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  And if that’s how I answer with my lips, then the next question is whether that is also the answer I give with my life, or whether there is a disconnect between my lips and my life.

For most of us, myself included, there is often a disconnect.  And part of the problem, and here I’ll speak for myself, is that often we don’t know or we forget what it is we’re actually saying.  Our church language becomes a sort of specialized discourse that we use and repeat often on Sunday mornings, but we don’t use much during the rest of the week.  We say Jesus Christ, and subconsciously we think of it as a first and a last name, forgetting that Christ is a title, the Greek equivalent of Messiah, which means God’s anointed one.  We proclaim Jesus as Son of God, but what does that actually mean to us?  Has our repetition of the phrase turned it into a cliché, devoid of any meaning which could translate into meaningful action in our lives?

When I was in seminary about eight years ago, I was told the story of a Muslim student who attended a course in a Catholic University in order to learn more about Christianity.  One day, he asked his professor if he could attend the weekly Eucharist held at the university, and of course the professor invited him along.  The Muslim student was very attentive throughout the liturgy and considered deeply all that was said and done.

After the service, the Muslim student went up to his Professor and said to him, “Professor, that was a beautiful liturgy, but there is one thing that I have difficulty understanding.  You Christians believe in the Incarnation, that in the person of Jesus, God became human, and so Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, one with God, the creator of heaven and earth.  Have I got that right?

“Yes, that is correct,” replied the Christian Professor, a bit hastily, “but I can see how you might have difficulty understanding that, since Islam regards Jesus as a prophet.”

“What you have said about Islam is true,” said the student, “but though a belief in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is not my faith, that’s not what I’m having difficulty understanding.  Let me go on.  You Christians also believe that Jesus is really present amongst you when you gather in worship and especially in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and that he enters into you when you take Communion.”

“Yes that’s true,” acknowledged the Professor, “and that must certainly be difficult for you to understand, it may even seem ridiculous to you”

“No that’s not it,” said the Muslim student, shaking his head.  “I understand your belief in the presence of Christ in worship and in the Eucharist even though it is not my faith.  What I have difficulty understanding is this:  If you believe that Jesus is God, and that He is present in your worship and in the Eucharist, then how is it that once you have received him in such an intimate way that you are not completely overwhelmed and collapse to the ground in awe and wonder?

How indeed!

Do we realize what we’re saying when we confess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?  When we answer the question “Who do you say I am?” with these words?

I am not saying that we’re always going to understand, or even that we’re ever going to understand fully in this life.  And I certainly don’t expect that when we answer with our lives that we’re always going to get it right either.  After all, even Peter, who has been faithfully following Jesus, and who gives the right answer in today’s gospel, well, we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel that even Peter doesn’t really know what he’s saying and gets it terribly wrong next week. 

But even though we won’t always get things right, when we are asked “Who do you say I am,” the answer we give, with our lips and especially with our lives, matters.  In fact, it can change the world.  Just ask Shiphrah and Puah.

Who’s that you say?  Shiphrah and Puah are the midwives in today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus.  It is the story of the birth of Moses.  But before that can happen, we need to hear the story of Shiphrah and Puah.  We don’t know much about them, but we know that these two women feared God.  That is, they understood who God was with all the awe and reverence and wonder and respect that that understanding entails.  And because they knew who God was, when Pharoah, with all his earthly prestige and power orders Shiphrah and Puah to kill any Hebrew boys that are born, they refuse to do it, in a courageous act of civil disobedience that ultimately changed history, although the midwives had no way of knowing it at the time.  One of the boys that is allowed to live as a result of their actions is Moses, who goes on to confront Pharoah and liberate the Hebrew slaves.  But it all starts with two women who knew who God was, and proclaimed it in their lives by being willing to say no to an act of injustice.

Jesus asks, “who do you say I am?”  How we answer matters.


Because our answer matters, in our Open Space today, I’d encourage you to do two things.  The first is to answer the question for yourself, in your own words, in words that you understand, in as few words or as many as you like.  Who is Jesus for you?

Then, once you’ve put that into words, reflect a little on how well the answer you’ve given with your lips connects with the answer you give in the everyday actions of your life.

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