16 Pentecost, Proper 19
The Rev. Elizabeth A.B. Tesi
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8;
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38.
A long time ago, I was sent to spend the summer at Christ Church, Greenwich, the wealthiest parish in the wealthiest town in CT. Working in Greenwich for that summer changed my world. One family sticks in my mind. They did truly love each other. The son was a talented young artist who dreamed of going to New York for art and design. His father demanded he’d go to Duke on a lacrosse scholarship for pre-law. The kid was a talented lacrosse player too, and struggled so much because he truly wanted to please his father, who he respected greatly. The family demands were killing him, and his father (who really was a good man) struggled to reconcile his disappointment with and his love for his son. They had each other on a pedestal of sorts, and in the meanwhile, couldn’t relate to the real self of the other.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus is on the way to Caesarea Philippi when he starts talking with his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks them. Listen to what they reply: “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” These individuals are some of the most famous prophets in the Hebrew canon. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. It’s like they said “You are Madonna, or Katherine Jeffrets Schori, or maybe Chip Kelly.” Jesus’ followers tell him that the public idolizes him.
Jesus asks again, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Peter has placed him on the highest pedestal of all. Jesus is not just a famous person- he’s God incarnate, the one they’ve all been waiting for. Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him.
We often wonder why Jesus does this. In each gospel where this story is told, it comes after some of the miracle stories. Feeding thousands with simple loaves of bread. Healings. Jesus has been doing some remarkable things; of course people are going to talk. Jesus certainly doesn’t dispute with Peter about his identity. He privately accepts the mantle of Messiah, the role and identity. But he does command his disciples not to tell anyone. He does not want the idealized role of a public messianic identity to dominate his interactions with people.
Jesus, in effect, says, “Don’t put me on a pedestal”.
He asks his closest followers, his disciples, his 12 best friends, to keep him real. Jesus’ main idea of his mission was to bring God’s people into a community of reconciliation, equality, and hope. Fame often devastates our ability to do the real work we are called to. We see that played out in our society. In 1995, Shannon Faulkner won her court fight to become the first female cadet at the elite military college, the Citadel. She did not graduate from the Citadel, but women after her have. The pressure of her fame exposed her to such a harsh spotlight and such intense hazing that it killed her vocation. Think of the Philadelphia 11, the first Episcopal women ordained to the priesthood. I’ve heard that none of them retired from parish ministry, but they paved the way for the women after them. Their fame made it very difficult to function in the very parishes they’d fought to serve. There is so much one simply can’t do when too many people overlay their own expectations of who and what we can do, without an actual relationship.
Jesus still had some serious ministry to do, and he did not want to be on that pedestal of the public role of Messiah. That work didn’t require fame and fortune, but deep interpersonal relationship. Jesus passed that mission down to us, through his disciples. We are charged to continue to reconcile our hurting world to a God who loves eternally.
Yet here’s the rub. Few of us are well-known or famous. Struggling with fame has not been our challenge, but struggling with our ordinariness, and our powerlessness. It’s so easy to become frustrated with our feelings of powerlessness. There is so much happening in the world that I feel powerless to do anything about, and it grieves me greatly. I am sure I am not alone in that frustration. Sometimes I wish I had a bigger voice to be able to do something to help this world more. We have soldiers coming home and struggling with suicidal thoughts and actions as they struggle to reconcile their time in service with their home life, and it kills me that there is nothing I am allowed to do to help. We have insane movie directors who make inflammatory YouTube videos about movies that may or may not actually exist that incite waves of deadly violence all over the globe, and the most power I have to do anything about it is to “like” a comment on Facebook. Hillary Clinton speaks, and while I appreciate her words and her intelligence, I wish I could wordsmith her a little more to tell the world what I would want to be said. I am quite sure I am not alone in the urge to wordsmith our leaders to our own goals. Sometimes it seems as though the people who are on that pedestal are the ones who have the power to change our world, and I am bothered by my sense of powerlessness.
Jesus challenges my sense of powerlessness. He embraced that powerlessness whenever he could, because he modeled a different sort of change in the world. He modeled a relational change in which each interaction with people: the sick, the hungry, the wealthy, his best friends: became a way to develop deeper and greater relationship. Perhaps, just perhaps, he is modeling that God values our relationships over our ability to change the world.
Yet I also believe we are given these feelings and urges to help change the world for a reason. It gives us a place to focus, our vocation. Theologian Frederich Buechner said that “The place that God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For Christ, that place was in carefully developed relationship where he could forgive sins, heal the sick, raise the dead. I know there are many of you who join in to build houses for Habitat, or who volunteer as vets to help other vets, or who work to make things better for people with HIV, or who campaign for marriage equality, or who take other steps, quietly, in the fullness of who you are, to make things better in the small slice of the world that you live in. That work becomes possible because of the relationships you forge. You seek to make your world a more hospitable, more graceful place.
Jesus challenges us with powerlessness, as he eschews public fame, so that in our anonymity, we might have the strength to build relationship. In relationship, we see God’s heart, and in God’s heart we are transformed by and with each other. It is there in our powerlessness that we name Jesus as both Messiah, and as friend.