Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 27, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 13

Pentecost 12, 2023
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The themes running through today’s readings are identity and community. And identity and community are key to understanding how the Episcopal Church exists, especially right now.  Because no matter where you sit on the social-political spectrum in 2023, there are people to the left of you, and people to the right of you.  We are not a monolithic group of people tied to a political party.  There is room for everyone.  All are welcome: regardless.

In any random gathering of Episcopalians, you may find yourself on the left, or on the right, or in the middle.  And you never know which until you walk into the room, and the conversation begins.  This is what drew me to the Episcopal Church in the first place.  Some people take great pride in being on the left or on the right; I prefer to be in the middle.  Because that’s where you can hear with both ears.  Having both a left wing and a right wing is what enables a bird to fly, right?

When I went to seminary in New York City, as a lifelong Republican, I was definitely to the right of just about everybody . . . for blocks around.  And now, as a person with generally progressive views, living in Stark County, I am definitely to the left of most people I meet.  My identity is who I am, but the community is where I live.  This is true both inside and outside the church: we have our identity and we have our community, and we need them both.  We were created to need them both, because that is what the Kingdom of God is like.  All the redeemed individuals, from every time and place, gathered as a community around the throne of God.

Community and identity are what it means to be part of the Church, and —as I said—community and identity are what today’s lessons are all about.  We started with that well-known story of Moses, which you probably first heard in Sunday school as a child.  (Though probably without the gruesome details about killing all the male children.)  Moses’ identity was hidden, right?  Multiple times, in fact!  What we heard today was the deceit used to save his life, because he was precious and loved.  (Think back to the parable of the deceitful man, who finds a pearl and buries it in a field and buys the whole field.)  And Pharaoh’s daughter names him Moses, “because I drew him out of the water.”  (Think back to the nature of Baptism, where we are each drawn up out of the water.)

And, as the story continues, once Moses’ true identity is known, he returns to his people, to his community, but as a shepherd.  And God calls to him out of the burning bush and reveals God’s identity to Moses.  Remember?  Moses asks God who he should say sent him?  And God says, tell them I AM has sent you.  God’s identity and Moses’ identity are revealed within the community.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, that part we heard today, he says “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”  We all have different gifts, and talents, and abilities.  That is what makes us individuals, what gives us each our identity.  But we are united  to one another in this community; we are members of one another.  This is some seriously deep and challenging stuff, I know.  We are distinct from one another as individuals, and yet our identity is in community with one another.  They seem to be opposite ideas, but in fact they go together.

Returning to what I said in the beginning here, people on the left and on the right seem to be opposite of one another, and yet they find their identity in joining together in one body.  One body in Christ.  That’s what makes this different.  What makes the Church different from other communities is the thing that brings us together.  One body in Christ.  Which leads us to today’s gospel reading.

Now this may be a little heavy for this hour of the morning, but stay with me here.  There’s a school of thought in psychology that we can only know who we are by seeing other people react to us.  That is, if we don’t have other people giving us constant feedback, we have no identity.  (The extreme edge of this thinking claims we only exist because other people think we exist.)  But when you think about it, it makes sense.  Consider the psychological damage done to people put into solitary confinement.  Consider how someone’s schizophrenia is worsened by being ignored as they walk down the street.  At a basic level, to not be seen is to lose your identity.  Community and identity go hand in hand.  To be ignored is to be forgotten, and to be forgotten is to cease to exist.

Jesus asks his disciples, who do people say that the son of man is?  What do people outside our community say?  And they respond, well, people outside the community are saying John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”  Or, it’s actually more, “Who are you saying that I am?”  You people sitting in front of me, who’ve spent all this time with me, who are my community . . . who are you saying that I am?  And Simon Peter answers, “We are saying that you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The identity of Jesus is revealed in the community.  Which is not to say that the community makes Jesus into the Messiah.  But that identity is revealed within the community.  It takes a community to know who Jesus is.  Sure, Peter gets all the credit for saying it aloud, but it takes the whole community to reveal Jesus’ identity.  And on this rock I will build my church.  The Church is built on the identity of Jesus.

And that’s a key distinction between the Church and the world around us.  In most organizations, the community is built around the identity of the real-world leader.  A cult of personality, as we sometimes call it.  And when that leader is gone, the community falls apart.  The Church is completely different from that, because our community is gathered around Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come.  The Church is not gathered around the priest, or the bishop, or the presiding bishop.  We are gathered around Jesus.  And here’s why that’s important . . .

As I said a few minutes ago, our Episcopal branch of the Church in particular is a messy bustling place, and that’s what I love about it.  We don’t all agree on everything.  In fact, it’s possible we don’t agree on anything!  But we are called into this community, into this church around this shared belief with Peter:  Jesus is the Messiah.  That’s what holds us together.  Not my views, or your views, or someone else’s views.  Because those things come and go.  The Episcopal Church was once called “The Republican Party at prayer.”  That’s not a thing people say anymore!

What holds us together is that we are gathered around the identity of Jesus, the Messiah.  And we find our identity in this community.  We know who we are because we know who Jesus is.  And that is the rock on which Jesus builds the Church.

You and I might have very different views about things social and political.  And that’s okay.  In fact, I would say that’s good.  The broader our diversity, the better!  But you and I also know that what brings us together, what forms this community, what gives us our identity is Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God.

May God give us the grace to continue living together in harmony.  We, who are many, are one body, for we all share in the one bread.


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