Sermon preached by the Reverend Nichlas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 21, 2011
Three clergy—a Lutheran, a Catholic, and an Episcopalian ended up at the same time at the Gates of heaven. It turns out that Jesus was administering the entrance exam that day. “The question is simple,” he said, “Who do you say that I am.”
The Lutheran stepped forward and began, “The Bible says…” but Jesus interrupted and said, “I know what the Bible says; who do you say that I am?” The Lutheran just stood there with his mouth open and fell through a trap door. The Catholic, quite certain that he knew the answer, blurted out, “The Pope says…” but Jesus again interrupted and said, “I don’t care what the Pope says; who do you say that I am?”
“If the Pope’s pronouncement isn’t the answer you want, I’m not sure what to say,” the Catholic said. He, too, promptly fell through the trap door. Jesus turned to the Episcopal priest and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” The Episcopalian replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then, just as Jesus smiled and gestured for the Pearly Gates to be opened, the Episcopalian added, “but on the other hand…”
We Episcopalians are not known for great dogmatic declarations or for producing theological tomes. In fact, we are a denomination that has always allowed for individual perspectives on matters of faith that may not always be in conformity with orthodoxy. We make room for thoughtful questioning. And, we love those questions—not so much to find answers but to inspire us to ask even deeper questions.
Belief is a very personal thing and yet it is also a very communal thing. I have my own belief system in terms of the Gospel and the doctrines of the Episcopal Church but when I come here to worship with you, I don’t say, “I believe” but rather join with the entire community and, as a part of it, say, “We believe…”
In the Gospel we heard today, Jesus makes a distinction between what others—the crowds, the Pharisees, the curious—say about him and what his closest friends say about him. It is clear that what is important to him is what his friends think. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus wants a personal and individual response—not the Bible’s, not the Pope’s.
That day Peter got it right for a change. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” In other words: You are God on earth in human flesh. You are God in our midst, present with us in the flesh of Jesus—now God with us in bread, wine, water, and the Word.
Did they still struggle with that pointed question? Certainly. Peter was yet to deny he even knew Jesus three times in succession and Thomas had his doubts even after the rest of them told him they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. Belief is a tough thing. Maybe you don’t even have an answer today. Maybe you are here to ask questions like “Does God really care about me? How can I live with hope in a world that is full of uncertainty, full of pain, full of bad news?
Just as in the case of others who were asked the question—and to whom the question is still posed today—it would be naive of us to assume that everyone is on the same page in terms of being able to make Peter’s confession of the divinity of Jesus with such great conviction. Belief is a tricky, sometimes fleeting, sometimes difficult, maybe even sometimes impossible thing. Yet there is one thing we know for certain: everyone believes in something. Everyone believes in something.
Some people believe in self- determination, some believe in God as a puppeteer. Some people believe in their horoscope, some believe in the stock market. Some people believe in a God of anger and judgment, others believe in a God of love and mercy. Some people believe in the Bible, some believe in the Koran. But underneath all of them is one constant: Whatever we believe at the deepest core of our being determines who we are, what we will become, and how we live our lives. No one goes through life without belief in something.
Maybe the more relevant question for us moderns is “Where do we find God? Where does God hide out?”
Let me share a story told in India about a holy man who would sit in the groves and among the roads teaching the people and praying with them and they would come to him in huge crowds for advice, for his words that encouraged them and gave them hope. The king of the land looked disapprovingly upon this itinerant preacher and decided that he would build a huge marvelous temple where the people could come and listen to the priests and leaders who would preach to them.
After years of building, the edifice was finally completed, dedicated, and opened for business—but the people didn’t come, because the holy man and his followers weren’t invited to preach and teach there. They stayed in the groves and the fields.
One day the king with his entourage of priests went to visit the holy man and asked why he would not come to the temple. One of the people spoke up: your temple of gold, jewels and marble is as hard and cold, as unrelenting and ungiving as you yourself are in life. The king was furious. Then another person spoke: over the years when you were building your temple there were floods, famine and disease that wreaked havoc among us. We came to your temple seeking help, medicine, even shelter from the storms, or to get clean drinking water and food and you barred your gates and locked your doors, continuing to spend so much money on your temple. No matter how much you bless this building—God will never visit here.
The king was turned beet red, livid with anger. You, you! He sputtered out. Get out of my country and never return or you will be arrested and publicly executed to teach everyone here a lesson. The holy man and his followers, just simple, ordinary women and men, arose together, bowed to the priests and the king and the holy man spoke for the last time: I gladly go into exile. Long ago you exiled God from your country. I go into exile with your people because that is where God hides out. But I will not leave your borders. If you want me, come look for me among the people—the place where God chooses to dwell and make his temple.
The temple in which we gather to hear God’s Word, seek God’s grace, and be nourished through an ancient and sacred meal that God’s Son first gave to his dearest friends is not lavish with gold, jewels and marble nor would anyone describe it as hard and cold. Here your clergy preach Good News of God’s radical welcome and unconditional love. Here every person—no matter what they believe or don’t believe—is invited to enter, sit among us, come to God’s Table for holy food and drink. Here we are challenged to be transformed by God’s Word and Sacrament.
Here there are no barred gates nor locked doors and anyone can come to seek shelter from the storms and find at least some modicum of peace apart from what is a turbulent, often unjust world. Here there are no outcasts and no litmus test for belonging. Here there is a community of fellowship that is not easy to find in what is increasingly becoming a society of entitlement and privilege.
So no matter what you may believe this morning, no matter how you will answer the question that Jesus poses: “Who do you say that I am?” I hope that one thing you do believe in is this place and how extraordinary a church it is, what a difference this community of faith has made in the lives of so many, how imperative it is that we sustain this precious and rare expression of Christianity that so embraces the real Gospel values taught and lived by Jesus and his disciples for it is a far too scarce experience.
As I have said more than once, I believe passionately in this remarkable church as I believe the sun rises. Not only because I see it, but because by it—I see everything else. It is, indeed, the place where God chooses to dwell and make his temple—truly a place where God hides out.