What’s in a Name – and Who’s Behind It? – August 27, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 27, 2017

Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Amen.

My Wednesday morning routine includes a stop at Starbucks for a decaf, skinny, vanilla latte and vanilla bean scones, the latter which is shared with my Chihuahuas, Ashton and Savannah, who become very vocal when I walk in the door with coffee an bag in hand. One of the nice things about ordering at Starbucks is that they ask for your name and write it on the cup that will be filled with your beverage of choice.

We are known by our name. It is a unique and intimate part of our identity. Yet behind the name and face that appears at Starbucks lies the mystery of who am I – really? What do I do in the world? What do I believe? What’s important to me?

There are several avenues down which one can travel in parsing and unpacking the Gospel we have read today and at the heart of it all is one very tough and pointed question that Jesus poses: Who is he? Note that he makes a distinction between what others—the crowds, the Pharisees, the curious—say about him and what his closest friends say about him.

There are as many answers to his question as there are individuals who respond. Some say that he is a prophet or a great teacher or a Rabbi or moral leader. He may or may not find it interesting what all these other anonymous folk have to say but it is clear that what is important to him is what each of his closest friends, his disciples, is thinking. “Who do you say that I am?” It is not enough for him to what other people think, to repeat what others are saying. Jesus wants to hear their answer.

It should be no surprise that impetuous Peter can’t wait to answer the question. This time he gets it right. His confession of faith is articulate and complete. Confronted by this person he has lived with, prayed with, journeyed with, even argued with, Peter blurts out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Interesting responses come from the group but it was only Peter who nailed it and has his shining moment—at least that day.

Did they all still struggle with that question Jesus posed? Certainly. Later, Peter would deny he even knew Jesus and Thomas had his doubts even after the rest of them told him they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. It’s still a tough question and will continue to be as long as it’s asked of people just like us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Perhaps we have our own interesting answers. Maybe we don’t have any answer today. Maybe we are here to find the answer. Maybe we are here to ask more questions. Just who is Jesus of Nazareth?

Sr. Rachel Hosmer, of the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross, tells about a dream she had about ordering from a Sears Catalogue. Only this was no ordinary catalogue. In it, she could order the Jesus of her choice. The dream flowed on: there was Jesus as a seminary professor, with pipe and tweed jacket. There was Jesus the farmer, with calluses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails. There was a suburban, church-going Jesus in a suit and tie. There was a Latino Jesus, and an African-American Jesus. There was a feminist Jesus, who enabled bent women to stand up.

In her dream, Sr. Rachael chose one and ordered that Jesus. She received a Jesus, but it was different from the one she had ordered. She ordered another Jesus, and again she got a Jesus different from the one she had chosen. This happened again and again. Every time she received a Jesus who differed from the one she had ordered. And every time, it really was Jesus whom she was given.

The message of her dream became clear to her the next day. If she started where she was, with what she really longed for, Jesus would come into her life. And he was always different from her expectations, always wonderfully surprising.

What do we long for in Jesus today? What do we need him to be for us? Peter clearly not only recognized that Jesus was the Son of God but needed him to be his Messiah. I believe that this is a time in our history as the church and in the state of our world where it is essential that we ask that question Jesus asked of his closest friends.

We know from the Gospel we hear every week and from what has been handed down to us through the ages that Jesus had compassion for the poor, healed the sick, preached justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, invited everyone to 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.

From where I stand, my experience is that self-indulgence and greed for power has grabbed society by the heart. There seems to be a dearth of leadership on many fronts and a great divide that begs for healing and restoration. In psalm 146 we are told “Put not your trust in princes; in mortals who cannot save you.”

Like the world in which he taught, in which he gave the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us—a world troubled by conflict and poverty and discrimination—we need this Jesus of Nazareth to be our rock, to be our guide, to be our Messiah. Unlike human leaders who often just take us where we want to go, Jesus takes us where we don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.

Many people construct a God that works for them—some sort of understanding interwoven of the scraps of experience, needs, and projections. I wonder what answers we’d get if we randomly asked one another, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Like the name written on that cup in Starbucks, there is mystery behind it. There is much more beyond the name. “But who do you say that I am?”

On this very pleasant Sunday morning in Norwalk, Jesus asks us a tough question. Who is Jesus for you? Maybe you have the answer. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you will tomorrow. Maybe not. Perhaps even more important than your answer is this question: “What difference does it make in your life?”


Categories: Sermons, Worship