This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on August 24, 2014, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is based on the readings for Proper 16 year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi he turned and asked his disciples who do people say that I am…. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words; how many times I’ve read that passage; how many times I’ve worked to understand this passage where Peter confesses that he knows Jesus to be the Messiah the son of the living God. But the way that I read, understand and hear that passage now has been marked changed by my trip to Israel this past year. Having stood in the place where the church celebrates Peter’s confession, there at the headwaters of the River Jordan on Mount Herman, my understanding of this passage has been changed forever. So what I’d like to do this morning is to tell you the story again and try to give you some sense of the visuals that have so impacted the way I hear these lines.
We’ll start a little earlier in the story. Jesus is still on the Sea of Galilee. If you picture the Sea of Galilee shaped as a hand he’s down here on the southwest corner in the place where the church celebrates the multiplication of the fish and loaves. He’s just performed a miracle, thousands of people have been fed, and in the immediate aftermath of that miracle Matthew tells us that the scribes and the Pharisees show up and they say shows a sign to prove who you are. What are you kidding? Were you not just here? What kind of a sign do you want? Jesus says to them that no sign will be given to them; that they know where the wind blows, that they can read the signs of the day and of the world around them. But they are so blind that no additional sign will be given to them.
Then he and his disciples get into the boat and they travel from the southwest corner of the Sea of Galilee all the way to the north, land their boat, and travel way up into the mountains to Mount Hermon, to a place that’s now called Banyas. This is the place where Peter makes his confession. Going to Banyas you travel by bus up a steep winding Road, rocky dry terrain, multiple switchbacks on the road. It’s pretty terrifying because its two-way traffic and the road is very narrow and the turns are very sharp. You get to the top and suddenly you break out into this lush green landscape. There’s a parking lot and there’s water, lots and lots of water in these carved channels that have been prepared to preserve the site. You look up onto the hill and there’s a big cave in the face of this mountain. At least 200 years before Jesus we know that there was a shrine to the Greek god Pan in that cave. One of the nature gods: goats legs and feet, a human torso, head, and arms Pan was the God of pastures, and of shepherds and of flocks. Two hundred years before Jesus was even born the Greeks were worshiping pan in this place. In fact our earliest reference to the spot in 200 BC calls it Paneas and the name that we have for today is a corruption of that name Banyas.
Well in the year 40 BC Caesar Augustus conquered this land and he gave it to Herod the Great. Herod the Great built on this site a plain white marble temple to Caesar. So now you have two communities, two sets of beliefs, two approaches to the world represented here in this beautiful spot where the most important river in that part of the world originates. Here is a cave with the shrine dedicated to Pan and a temple, a marble temple, dedicated to Caesar who was thought to be divine. This is the place to which Jesus brings the disciples to ask them the question who do you say that I am?
Now he could’ve asked him this question there where we celebrate the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. He could have taken them to Capernaum, just a little north along that western shore of the Sea of Galilee, to where they had their base of operations and many of the disciples had their homes. He could have asked them there. But he didn’t. He took them way out of their path, way up into the mountains to a place where there are two starkly competing worldviews. that’s where he asked him the question.
The Greek pantheon of Gods, always competing with one another, using humanity as a chessboard, each demanding their own form of sacrifice their own form of prayer, human beings were merely play things to the gods and our fates were all wrapped up in their gamesmanship, and their battles, and their competitions. Over here, a plain white marble temple to Caesar, a place, a world view, a theology that our says that power and oppression the world, that people are merely chattel in service to the Emperor and to the power structure and the hierarchy that is. Here with these two worldviews in stark competition with one another, Jesus the one who tells us that we should love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbors as ourselves asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
I think it’s important for us to recognize the conflict that Jesus has created by bringing the disciples here. Because when Peter answers his question Jesus called him and the disciples to action. If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah then the way that you interact with creation, with the people around you, with all of the world changes dramatically. No longer are human beings the playthings of the gods with fates that are set and sealed and beyond our control. No longer are people chattel to be used and oppressed in order to service the rich and the mighty. If you say that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God then we are all beloved children of God, equal in God’s sight, and deserving of one another’s love and respect, of dignity, and of life.
This is the place, this is the context where Jesus asks his question. I think that if it Jesus were to come here today and to ask each of us who we say he is… he would manufacture exactly this kind of conflict, this kind of context in which to ask the question. He wouldn’t come here. He wouldn’t come to the church because the answer would be too easy. It would roll off of our tongue without a second thought. We are surrounded by the symbols of our faith. We’re surrounded by the sacraments of Christ continued presence among us and to ask us that question here would just get the same answer over and over again.
If Jesus were to come back today and to ask each of us this question I think he would take us to the place where we are most conflicted, where there are the most competing elements, competing powers, competing theologies for our attention, our loyalty, and our imaginations and hearts. Jesus would find that place for each and every one of us and of ask that question in that place. He would ask us there because if we are to declare that Jesus is the Messiah the son of God then our lives, the way that we interact with one another, the way that we interact with the world will be changed; because we will understand and know beyond a doubt we are all beloved of God, God’s children worthy of dignity, respect and life.
I don’t know if your minds have wandered off here looking for that place, wondering where Jesus would confront you with this question, where Jesus would ask you if you’re willing to change your behavior and life and proclaim that he is the Messiah. But as I have pondered this question over the last week I have been convicted of the truth that if Jesus were to ask me this question today he wouldn’t take me to Banyas, to the headwaters of the River Jordan, he would take me to Ferguson, Missouri.
We have seen images coming out of that place that we can scarcely believe; images that seem like they belong in a foreign land, in a foreign country. How can these things happen here? I think if Jesus were to come back and ask that question today he would ask me in Ferguson, Missouri.
Think for a minute about our Old Testament lesson today. Pharaoh has decided that the people of Israel are a threat and so he burdens them with incredible labor. And when that doesn’t oppress them and keep them down he says that all male children who are born need to be killed by the midwives. And when that doesn’t work he says that they should go out and kill all male children who are already born. A whole generation of young men were in danger of being slaughtered in order to appease this worldview that people are chattel, that they exist to service those who are in power.
I think that even though this happened hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus was born the response of the two midwives in today’s reading from Exodus was a response to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” They refused to submit to that power structure. They refused to embrace that worldview and they subverted the system. And they saved that generation of boys.
I think that in Ferguson, Missouri we have seen evidence, we have been shown in a way that we cannot avoid, that there is a generation of young men in this country who are in danger, who are in danger of being lost. I believe that Jesus is asking us who we believe he is, and challenging us to do something about it.
Ferguson Missouri is awfully far away. The more I think about this the more I realize that Jesus wouldn’t have to take me that far in order to confront me with this situation and ask me this question. With the Race to Equity Report that came out earlier this spring, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report: both of which tell us that this is the worst state in the country for young black men to grow up; that in this county and in the city you have a exponentially greater chance of being suspended or expelled from school if you are black, and that our prisons are populated by a disproportionate number of black men; that if you are a black man in this county and in the city you are far more likely to be stopped by the police than if you are white, Jesus stands here in our midst this morning and asks us who we say that he is. And our answer is crucial. How we answer that question will determine how we behave as we walk forward from this moment. Peter was given the keys to heaven, told that on the rock that he had become as he made this confession Jesus would build the church, and at what he’ll loosed and bound would be loosed and bound in heaven. Our vocation as the body of Christ, as the Church is to stand in the midst of these competing values and worldviews and to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and to allow that truth statement to change the way that we behave, and to work for change in the world around us.
I started this sermon this morning by quoting the first line of our Gospel passage, “When Jesus came to the district of Caesarea Philippi he asked the disciples…” I think that when I post the sermon on our website this afternoon the title that I will give it will be, “When Jesus came to the district of Ferguson, Missouri he turned and asked us…”