Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 24, 2014
In the Name of God, who made and knows us, Jesus, who redeems and befriends us, and the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
Two nuns were out shopping and passed through the aisle displaying beer. The first nun mused how nice it would be to have some beer with their pizza that night. The second nun agreed but said she wouldn’t feel comfortable buying it. What would people think about them?
The first nun replied that she had an idea. She picked up a six-pack and took it to the cashier who had a surprised look on his face. “We use beer for washing our hair,” said the nun, “a sort of shampoo.” Without blinking an eye, the cashier reached under the counter, pulled out a package of pretzel sticks, placed them in the bag with the beer, looked the nun straight in the eye, smiled, and said, “The curlers are on the house.”
Humor aside, I have the utmost respect for consecrated women and believe that their ministry has been a powerful witness for Christianity. I have very great affection for the Sisters of Charity who taught me and the School Sisters of Notre Dame in which community my great aunt was a member and with whom I have shared a wonderful friendship. Yet, the humor in that story does have a point.
When I was a child in grammar school, the nuns who taught us were surrounded with an aura of mystery. Part of that was the habit that covered them from head to toe, part was our illusion about what convent life was all about. It wasn’t until years later when I was in college and studied alongside the many sisters who were there for summer courses that I learned that they were human beings with feelings and opinions and a sense of humor. They missed their families, liked to watch TV and enjoyed beer with their pizza. One of them secretly smoked!
They had answered a special calling in life and, unfortunately, the rigidity of their convent lifestyle not only masked much of their appearance but also concealed the unique human being living under the veil. I also learned how harsh their superiors could be and how tightfisted some pastors were with funds to provide decent food.
Things have changed and religious sisters—both Roman Catholic and Anglican—often wear regular dress and have the freedom both to allow their personality and unique gifts to be part of their service to the church and to offer it in a wide variety of venues and ministries. But there was a time when these women probably felt invisible on some level and at times may have questioned, “Who am I?”
I’ve begun with this reflection because of the poignant question Jesus poses today: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus makes a distinction between what others—the crowds, the Pharisees, the naysayers, the curious—say about him and what his closest friends say about him. What other people think doesn’t so much matter. Jesus wants to know what his closest friends think about him.
It should be no surprise that impetuous Peter can’t wait to answer the question. This time he gets it right. His profession of faith is articulate and complete. Confronted with this question from Jesus with whom he has lived, prayed, traveled, and argued, Peter leaps out of the metaphorical boat once again: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”
Theologian Paul Tillich contends that Christianity was not born at in a stable to a peasant couple named Mary and Joseph nor was it born when angels declared to the shepherds that a savior had been born nor when astrologers came from the East bearing gifts for the “King of Kings,” but rather there at the base of Mt. Hermon when Jesus of Nazareth asked his followers a question that billions of people ever since have had to face.
How many times in our lives might we have felt insecure and unsure of ourselves? Have we wondered, “What do you think I’m like, really?” or “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” or “Am I okay?” It’s a hard to live with the fact that the world doesn’t want to know us as we really are. When are rejected because of our gender, race, personality, looks, age, sexual orientation, IQ, peculiarities; when people have huge and unreasonable expectations about who they want us to be, it can quickly erode any sense of self-esteem we have formed. It can be the precursor to a serious and complicated syndrome called depression. We may mask our unhappiness by feigned smiles behind which lives a reservoir of anguish, heartache, and even despondency.
The recent death of a popular comedic celebrity has raised awareness of the dire consequences of major depression and yet there are countless people who were not celebrities and who ended their lives. Over the years I have buried three young men, smart, gentle, gifted people whose smiles camouflaged the enormous unknown torment of their lives. What that was will remain a mystery to their family and friends. I suspect it had much to do with the question Jesus posed to his friends, “Who do you say that I am?” I suspect on some level they felt invisible.
Suicide becomes a final option when a person has lost one very precious and sometimes elusive thing: hope. Hope –in whatever form that takes for us—is the anchor that keeps at least one of our feet planted in this life. If we can restore for a person in distress the hope for something better than the present agony she or he knows, we can prevent their making an irreversible choice.
If you are living with depression that is at times overwhelming and debilitating, do not ignore it. There is no shame in admitting it. No one need tread this barren, black desert alone. Effective talk therapy and pharmacology are among God’s ways of providing help.
If you know someone who seems to exhibit signs of serious depression, talk to them and encourage them not to isolate or live with it in secret but to seek professional help. If you are uncertain what to do, I’m more than willing to offer you some direction.
We know who Jesus is. Peter spelled it out for us. 2000 years of study, research, learning and listening to God’s word has informed us that Jesus was a person that had compassion on the poor, healed the sick, preached justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, invited everyone to sit at the table with him, and would allow no outcasts. Here was a man who wore the face of God, who was God in the flesh.
What if we were to take Jesus’ question and turn it around? What if we were to ask Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” What would his answer be to that? He might point to our gifts, to the unique person we are, to the very features of our make-up we may have felt constrained to conceal or deny. Of this, I am certain. Jesus would tell you that you, sister or brother, are God’s beloved one. You are precious in God’s sight. You are loved just as you are and without condition.
We are asked to believe a number of things that are challenging for some: the Virgin birth, the Resurrection of Jesus, the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the doctrine of the Trinity. We may struggle with these doctrines—or not—but I’m wondering if the harder thing for many of us to really believe is God’s enormous, even outrageous love for us; that God is not happiest when we are miserable and wants us to be whole, healthy, and happy.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear from Jesus’ lips just who he sees in us? So, ask him. You have nothing to fear. “Who do you say that I am?” Knowing who Jesus is, we can pretty much predict the answer.