Sermon 9/12/21: A Reality Check and an Interim Assessment

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16 Pentecost

Psalm 19; Proverb 1:20–33; James 3:1–12; Mark 8:27–38

Who do men say that I am?” Mark 8:27b

But who do you say that I am?” Mark 8:29

In our industrialized economy it has become commonplace, especially at higher levels of administration, that those in position of responsibility must undergo an annual review.  Continuation of employment and increases in compensation are determined by the Annual Performance Review.  Depending on the corporation or institution, the following questions, or their variations, are included in that review:

  • How has your performance furthered the institution’s mission or goals?
  • Have you attained the goals or outcomes that were established during last year’s review?
  • How have you interacted with those in your department/on your team?
  • Looking ahead, what changes would you initiate so as to meet institutional goals?

These questions are not exhaustive. They vary depending on the type of business and the divisions within the business.  Incidentally, those who work on assembly lines may not have to undergo this form of review but, even so, they are reviewed.  Failure to maintain or uphold the speed of production will get a quick and direct criticism from a supervisor, and failure to meet expectations can result in dismissal.

But are politics and the political process excluded?  I think not.  There is the steady and on-going question regarding standing in the polls.  A candidate desires to know where he/she stands in the minds of those whom he/she is attempting to win over.  Thus, expectations are set, and evaluations undertaken:

  • Has the leader articulated clearly what she/he wishes to accomplish, if elected?
  • Has the leader chosen the correct team that can take the message forward?
  • Can the leader count on the loyalty of those whom he/she has chosen to get that message out to the people?
  • Can the leader rely on the staff to give honest and crucial criticism regarding behavior and message of the leader on the campaign trail?

And Jesus said unto them:
“Who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27b)
“But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

When reading excerpts from Holy Writ in liturgical settings, and because those excerpts are from the Bible, venerated for centuries by people of faith, we tend to treat that work, the Bible, as if it were a compilation of tales of magic, as if it does not present us with snippets of accounts of the people named therein as they grappled with their wonderment of the creation and the hand behind it, whom we, as people of faith, call God. 

We tend to forget or want not to acknowledge that Holy Scripture was written by many hands, over many centuries, and then compiled by men who fought, verbally and physically, to compile what we have.  Do we subconsciously fear that the Bible’s holiness will be diminished if we recall the humanness of those who contributed to its contents?  However, for me, that is precisely what makes the Holy Bible, holy.  It shows God at work among the creation in generations prior to our own and gives me hope that God’s hand can be felt in my/our generation.

A clear example of that struggle and the truth that emerges is given in today’s brief reading from Mark’s gospel.  The account of the incident that Mark has given us is straightforward.  Jesus and his disciples are traveling into the region of Caesarea Philippi.  On the way, Jesus asks the question of his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?”  That question distinguishes between what the world understands about the Messiah and what those who see with the eyes of faith understand.

It is not a generic question that Jesus poses.  Jesus wants to know what people think, those who have witnessed the healing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, the feeding of the hungry—all pointing to a deeper, a more profound desire of the God of Creation for wholeness.  The response, which his staff, the disciples who knew and mingled with the larger crowds gives, was truthful: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—all laudatory, but lacking the depth of understanding who the man from Nazareth truly is. 

The two questions that Jesus poses, first to the disciples regarding how others view him and then directly to his staff, his disciples regarding their own perception of him—those two questions could not, in my 21st century eyes, be more appropriate, more essential to his ministry.  Sent by God with the mission to restore the relationship that God had for us at Creation, and Jesus, having a voice in the Trinity, was right on target, to use a modern-day phrase, to pose the questions that he did.  “How is my message being received?  Should I change my vocabulary?  Should I be more aggressive, more conciliatory?  I am too passive?” 

When Jesus posed to his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?” he was seeking a truthful assessment.  He had received from them in the first question an assessment regarding where he stood in the polls.  He needed, though, to know the depth of his immediate staff’s understanding and loyalty.  And thus, appropriately, he puts the question to them: But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, impetuous Peter, saves the day.  And with his declaration Peter crosses from one level of faith into another.  This new stage of discipleship demonstrated a more mature faith on Peter’s part.  This stage of faith also allowed Peter, still in his humanness beset with flaws, to live a more dedicated life in the fullness of faith.

Let the record show that Peter often blurts out statements that he would later regret.  There are many instances in the four gospels of his lack of restraint, of engaging his tongue before engaging his brain.  For example, we recall how on the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matt. 17.4) Perhaps Peter asserted this because the moment so overwhelmed him, that he knew not what else to say.  However often Peter missed the mark, on this occasion he got it right. Jesus denies Peter’s request/offer, yet rewards his insight by saying to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.”

Peter assertion “You are the Messiah,” in its simplicity, is one of the grandest confessions of faith in the entire New Testament. Yet, lest we think that Peter has become suddenly a clairvoyant, a holy man, Jesus makes clear that Peter’s confession of faith is not strictly his own.  Clearly, by being a member of the inner circle of disciples, Peter has listened scrupulously to all that Jesus has said.  Obviously, he has heeded Jesus’ teaching that makes his confession possible.  Still, Jesus’ response also makes clear that Peter’s confession of faith is part of God’s gift of faith to Peter.  Somewhere between heaven and earth, people meet the truth about who Jesus is and who we are as disciples. 

An interim assessment: Because the effort to restore wholeness to God’s creation is not yet over, James supplied to his contemporaries (and to us, millennia later) an interim guide.  The restoration is ongoing.  James calls us teachers, and as teachers who must remain diligent in how we articulate our faith.  “…we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For all of us make many mistakes.”  James reminds us, as well, of the importance of little things, a perhaps on the surface insignificant utterance.  “…look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”  We of faith can be that very small rudder, on which God’s creation depends.

This brief passage from the letter of James evokes a further image—that of travel.  When we travel internationally, currently curtailed because of the pandemic, and return to the shores of the United States, we fill out a customs declaration form.  Still, on occasion a customs officer may ask: “Do you have anything to declare?”  It is an intriguing question when super imposed on matters of faith.  We search within ourselves an answer to that question Jesus asked so long ago: “But who do you say that I am?”  This question hands to people of faith a mirror with which to see and to judge their lives and its meaning.

I like to think of worship as that time of the week, whether at mass on Sunday or Evening Prayer during the week, where we check our lives against who we say we are and who we aspire to be.  Perhaps worship is the ecclesiastical equivalent of customs at the port of entry.  To be asked the question: “Do you have anything to declare?” is not a bad way to end a week of life in faith.  It is not a bad way to start a new week of faith, either.  God’s Messiah posed to the disciples the question: “And who do you say I am?”  My professorial question to you this week is: What do we have to declare?  Amen