But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

But What Do You Think?: Sermon for 24 August 2014

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I started eighth grade my least favorite class was English. And when I ended high school, my favorite classes looking back were English classes. Up until 8th grade English classes had been all about spelling and grammar and diagraming sentences. And that’s important to know, but it was never all that interesting to me.

But in the 8th grade we started to be handed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” or plays like “The Crucible”. And then, instead of multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank tests, we were given these questions that we had to respond to in essays.

ucccommaAt first I thought this was a trick and that I was missing something obvious. Like the test question that asked me about Atticus Finch and whether doing the right thing matters even when you know you’re going to lose. I was sure there was a paragraph in the book that would give me exactly the answer that I was looking for so that I would ace the test.

We all thought that. And so when we didn’t find it we all seemed to write some variation of what the teacher herself had said in class in our essays. Which is why when she handed back our exams and seemed less than excited about them we were confused. We had listened in class. We had taken notes. We had read the book. Why didn’t we get A’s?

But that was the first time I heard a teacher really say, “I don’t want you to tell me what other people think. I don’t want you to tell me what I think. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I want to know what you think.”

Today’s passage doesn’t take place in an English class, but it’s another that reminds me that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher. Jesus has pulled his disciples aside and he’s asking them an important question: Who do people think that I am?

And Peter, who always seems to be the first to raise his hand, has the answer. “Well, Jesus,” he says, “some think you’re John the Baptist, some think you’re Elijah, and some think you’re a prophet like Jeremiah.” And my guess is that Peter thought he had covered all the right possible answers there. He had done his homework. He was getting that A.

But Jesus pushes the question just a little more. He asks Peter, “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

Whenever I read that question I think about my English teacher, and the long line of teachers I had after her, and how they would push us to go deeper, and find the answers for ourselves. And in that moment I can picture Peter sitting there, trying to think of what to say, and how the easy or memorized answer was no longer enough.

And then it comes to Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”

And here’s the difference between a high school English student and Peter. In high school the right answer can get you an “A”. But with Jesus the right answer gets you something more. It gets you a new purpose and a whole lot of other questions.

Jesus says to Peter, “blessed are you” and he tells him that Peter is going to be the rock that Christ’s church will be built on. In that moment Peter goes from a guy who knew everyone else’s answer, to a guy who had his own and who would become a teacher in his own right.

After high school I went to college and, much to the chagrin of my parents who were pulling for law school, I became an English major, and then I went to seminary. I’ve always held the English major partially responsible for that. Because throughout college I ran into professor after professor who didn’t want to know what some critic thought, or even what they thought. They wanted their students to wrestle with the texts, to think for themselves, and to find the truth not in cliff notes or lectures, but in the process of truly trying to understand something complex.

And when you think about that, that’s pretty similar to what we as Christians are asked to do. Or, at least, we should be. Because Jesus, as you may have noticed, was rarely in the mode of handing out answers. He was much more the kind of teacher who gave his followers questions. In fact, I think that at times it must have been pretty infuriating to be a student of Jesus.

And yet, do we really want someone who just gives us the answer key? Do we really want to be able to just turn to the back of the book and find it there? Okay, maybe sometimes we do, but in the end do we really want an easy, simplistic faith? Or do we want one that forces us to go deeper, and that transforms us?

There is, as is fitting, no right answer there. And if you do want all the answers there are plenty or pastors and churches and people of faith who will purport to have them. But I’ve always been a little wary of those who claim to have all the answers about God, and who are unwilling to tell Christians to keep asking the tough questions. I guess that’s because I’ve always been careful of anyone who gives easy answers…because I’ve often found they won’t hold up in the hardest of times.

So, what does it mean to have a faith that embraces that question Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am”?

For starters, I think it’s about not being afraid to ask questions. Somewhere in so many of our faith upbringings we were been taught that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions, or to wonder. But Jesus was all about the questions. He was all about making people think. Just going through the motions of acting faithfully meant nothing to Jesus if there wasn’t true meaning behind it. And I don’t think there can ever be true meaning behind it if there is no depth. It’s like a plant that’s put into shallow soil. It may bloom for a little while but it won’t last for long.

So instead, what does it look like to not be afraid of knowledge? What does it look like to ask the big questions not in spite of the fact you are a person of faith, but because of it? This isn’t a new concept, just a somewhat lost one. Colleges like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth were founded by our Congregationalist ancestors. So was Phillips Exeter and a host of other schools. There was an assumption that education, and asking questions, didn’t hinder our relationship with God. It brought us closer. And it deepened it.

And here’s why I think this is. I don’t think Jesus was just asking Peter what Peter thought. I think that Christ continues to ask us all what we think. And in that, I think Jesus is asking us to go deeper. Not just into the questions and into the possible answers, but deeper into a relationship that demands more than us just repeating what we have heard from others. And that invitation, like any invitation to think for ourselves and experience something for ourselves, can be anxiety producing at first.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. My parents left it up to us to decide. But I had a lot of questions. So when I was 17 I decided to start going to church on my own. And the deeper I went in search of answers, the deeper my relationship with God became, and the less I was able to ignore it.

One morning towards the end of senior year I was driving to school with a good friend of mine who had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist family. And while I was finding faith, she was finding her way out of the church. But we were close, and I wanted to explain to her what was going on with me and I talked about how I just had this feeling and the more I explored the more I just felt this closeness with God that I couldn’t explain.

And I grew up in the South, you may remember, so about half way to school she sort of looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, “Emily, are you trying to tell me that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I was so surprised, and so afraid of what my friends would think, that I said, “no, of course not, I’m just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all”.

But while that’s not the language I would have used for it either then or now, the reality is that, yes, there was a relationship there that I had never had before. It didn’t look much like what I thought it was supposed to look like. There were more questions than answers, and sometimes more doubt than faith, but taking someone else’s word for it, and using their answers wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to at least start to answer that big question for myself. It was time to ask who I said that Jesus was.

Through the years the people of faith I have respected the most have been the ones who have asked that question themselves, no matter how messy the answers seemed. Their lives have proven to me that our personal faith stories, and our relationship with God, matter.

There was the friend who grew up in a church where he was always given easy answers, and who left it, and God, behind. Or so he thought. But now, he asks those questions again, and this time he doesn’t settled for what others say. He’s finding out for himself.

There was the friend who went to Iraq as an Army medic and came back questioning everything, and why God allowed the suffering she saw. In her darkest moments she wondered if God even cared. But she kept wrestling, through good and bad.

And there was the friend who narrowly escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 and, for the first time, asked questions about faith. A few years later he left his law office and went to seminary.

When I think about what it means to answer “who do you say that I am”, I think of them and so many others like them. And that’s what faith looks like to me. Not easy answers. Not being so self-assured that yours is the first hand up in the classroom. Not belief that tries to answer for others. But faith that would answer the old question of “but what do you think” well, and that never settles for an answer key that someone else wrote. Faith that settles for nothing less than a relationship, and life of searching. That’s the faith I hope you always feel like you can have here, and that’s the journey I pray we can go on together. Amen?