Exodus 3:13-14a; Luke 9:18-20
The Rev. Tom Herbek
July 30, 2017
On our recent vacation to the beach, Joan and I traveled through a large chunk of Virginia, and it struck me again how many of the churches there are similar. I saw probably 100 Baptist churches, a few Episcopal churches, one Catholic church, no synagogues, no mosques, no Unitarian churches. Each fundamentalist church appeared to believe that they were the one church that knew it all and had it all.
When it comes to faith and knowledge of God, no one person or group has it all. One of the dangers of those places in America where everyone is a Christian in about the same way, is that there is a tendency to think that their one experience is all there is to know about God, and therefore, everyone else is wrong. So there is no reason to consider anyone else’s point of view beyond a very narrow spectrum, and all real growth in their understanding of God stops happening.
But as Joan Chittister says: “There is the fact that each and all traditions of all the ages and all the people we will ever meet have something to teach us. It takes a lifetime of listening, of living, of suffering the pain of the process of growth and the pain of the distance we must cover to grow.”
For so many people in our society there is such an arrogance in what they believe. This is true in political commentary, presidential elections, TV soundbites, numerous blogs, and unfortunately, in many religious groups and religious leaders. Anyone who sees both sides of an issue – who seems comfortable with the ambiguity of life in a complex society – is denigrated as weak and wishy-washy. In so many places today, there is an unwillingness to just listen to what someone else is saying.
Quaker writer and educator Parker Palmer describes how much of a difference listening can make in our lives and the damaging result of not doing so: “We are surrounded by communities based on the practice of ‘setting each other straight’ – an ultimately totalitarian practice bound to drive the shy soul into hiding. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.”
When we come together out of respect for our differences, then we may experience the presence of God in that dialogue. It is interesting that the word “congregation” means people coming together. In our coming together, we enable each other to grow and learn who God is and who we are. God’s answer to Moses that “I am who I am” (and the Hebrew words can also be translated “I will be who I will be”) certainly does not promise us a God who can be fenced in or walled in or unambiguously defined for all time. And that is actually very good news. It means that, throughout our life, our understanding of God continually changes as we learn and grow and also change.
In her book, Christianity After Religion, author Diana Butler Bass writes:
Scholars and preachers often point to the fact that each of the four Gospels is very different from the others and that Jesus is depicted in profoundly different – and sometimes contradictory ways in those accounts. As a result, skeptics, doubters, and scoffers dismiss the Gospels as inconsistent or untrustworthy. Indeed, the seemingly historical “facts” of the Gospels are a jumbled mess and almost impossible to harmonize into a single, coherent, chronological account.
However, if you take Jesus’s question “Who am I?” and read the Gospels through the theme of understanding identity, the four stories come into focus in a much more cohesive way. The Gospels are the “good news” that, when we strive to answer Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?,” we plunge into the mysteries of ourselves, peeling away layers of self-delusion, deception, and deceit, to the unfathomable knowledge of who we really are when God is right there with us.
When Jesus asked the question of the disciples, “Who do you say I am?,” it was answered in a way that helped each of them to not only see Jesus in different ways, but also to understand their own life in a new way. In our wonderful openness to many different ways to answer this question in this church family, we must not forget that the question is one that each of us would benefit from answering. It is not, for any of us, an answer that will be the one we might give for the rest of our lives. After all, our answer will change over time, perhaps even tomorrow. But there is great value in each of us formulating an answer to this crucial question.
When we talk about the presence of God in Jesus (and also in the people around us, and in ourselves), it is called “incarnation” in theological circles. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says: “When I say ‘the incarnation,’ here’s what I mean: That as a Christian, if I want to give you my best explanation of what God looks like in sandals, I’m going to say ‘Jesus.’”
One of the things about Jesus’ impact on his disciples and on all those who had contact with him, is that they were all changed in some vital ways. They looked at God and life, the people around them, and even themselves differently, because of Jesus.
Theologian Brian McLaren says it this way:
Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t just think he was a godly man. There were a lot of godly people. They didn’t simply take their pre-existing idea of God and claim that Jesus resembles that idea of God. What happened in their encounter with Jesus was much more radical than that. They found themselves deconstructing their original idea of God in light of their experience of Jesus. So that they gradually moved into a new concept of God, one re imagined in the image of Jesus – God with us, not distant from us; God who suffers with and for us, not one who inflicts suffering upon us; a nonviolent God who forgives us as we torture him, not a God who threatens to torture us unless we submit.
It is really important that each day we try to understand a little more about the God who said: “I am who I am; I will be who I will be.” And that we come together to listen to each other, to learn from each other, and yet, to find our own way in the company of fellow journeyers on the faith journey.
Learning and growing, listening to one another, is the way we all grow in our faith. Eric Hoffer, the street philosopher, put it this way: “In times of great change [which is always], learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” Faith itself is actually a way to keep us learning, growing, and being transformed – not just a security blanket of doctrinal statements and moral principles.
As I listen to the loudest voices in our society, I sometimes wonder if their fear is that they, in some way, are beginning to face the fact that they are “beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”
However, in a world of great diversity, a world where people not only speak differently but also think and see life differently, there can be great hope. The fact that we can never all see and think and describe what life is all about in the same way gives me great hope. No one has it all exactly right.
Thank God for all of those different points of view that we encounter throughout our life, and that offer us great opportunities to learn and grow in the special path of life that is ours.
And, along the way, let us strive to find new ways to answer Jesus’ question, as we grow and become more of the person we were created to be: “And who do you say that I am?”
May this continue to be a church family where that question is an important question of our journey together, and where we celebrate the unique answers that we each find to that very personal, vital question.