"Who Do You Say That I Am" Sermon from Sunday, May 10, 2020 by Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "Who Do You Say That I Am?"
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
I’m looking around me and I’m thinking, this isn’t Minneapolis. I was supposed to be in Minneapolis this week and next, along with Randall Miller and Jeffrey Kuan and others from our congregation at the United Methodist General Conference. But like so many other things, it’s been postponed. I confess to you, that part of me is ok with not being there. As you probably know, General Conference occurs every four years, lasting ten days. United Methodists from all over the world come together and reconsider our way of doing things, the stands we are taking on issues, and how we could be more faithful as a church. This General Conference was supposed to be historic. We fully expected the United Methodist Church to divide into new Methodist expressions, new denominations. The new church I expected to be a part of would have been one that had eliminated formalized discrimination of LGBTQ persons by the church. As much as I long for that day, the part of me that is relieved with not being at General Conference is the part that knows General Conference is a battlefield.
Eight years ago as I walked through the airport to go to General Conference in Tampa, the words “I take refuge in the Sangha” kept running through my head. In Buddhism, the Sangha is understood as the community, and is considered one of the three jewels of refuge—the first one being the Buddha, who is the great teacher, and the second being the dharma, which is the path, the discipline, the way. The third jewel of refuge is the Sangha, the community that accepts and enfolds, supports and loves. In times of trouble and stress, Buddhists are supposed to remember and go to the three jewels of refuge. As much as one would hope that going to a worldwide gathering of United Methodists would be an experience of enfolding, of inspiration and of celebration, it usually is not. Debate can be acrimonious. Opportunities to really get to know our brothers and sisters from the Ivory Coast, from the Philippines, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are lost in attempts to preserve power. As I walked through the airport, it was sad to me that instead of feeling like I was going to take refuge in my community, my Sangha of the worldwide United Methodist Church, instead, it felt as if I was putting on battle gear.
One night back in my hotel room, taking a break from the General Conference, I saw this video. And I want to share it with you now, because it moved me then and the message still applies:
Don’t worry, Epworth isn’t being newly sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. You don’t have to worry about seeing ads in future worship services. The message implies that the hardest job in the world is being a mother, and I can attest there’s truth in that. But the same could be said for being a Christian, especially in environments like General Conference that require love and equanimity in the midst of a battlegrounds, or staying at home for seven weeks on end that requires patience and forebearance. The hardest job in the world, is the best job in the world. It’s moments like these, when we are really tested that define us and ask us to remember who and whose we are.
In our scripture for this morning, Jesus is talking with the disciples and asking them to tell him who he is. ‘Some say John the Baptist,” they said, “but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” No clear definition here. Significantly, the disciples are focusing on who others say he is. Jesus moves on from these definitions. They are only the quoted words of others about him, not the words of those who know him intimately. Not the words he knows to be true for himself. And so he asks them again, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ It’s then that Simon Peter answers for himself, ‘You are the Messiah,* the Son of the living God.’ And this is the definition that Jesus affirms for himself.
But look carefully at the scripture. Jesus doesn’t say to Peter, “You are right!” Instead Jesus affirms that Peter’s knowledge--his confession and proclamation of Jesus’ divinity--is a definition of who Jesus is that comes out of a place of courage, of faith, and of hope. In the midst of a battleground, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” As the other disciples showed, other people weren’t calling Jesus the messiah, the son of God. They were defining him as one in a long line of prophets, but not the one who had come to completely transform our lives. But Peter responded to the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth in the living God, who was Jesus.
And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my God in heaven. 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. 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.” This is Jesus’ proclamation that a community will follow him, affirming the definition of who he is that comes from God alone: he is the messiah, the Son of the Living God. God defines who Jesus is, not the limited understandings of the people who don’t even know him. And this community that will follow him, this church built on the rock of Peter’s proclamation, will have many challenges, described here as “the gates of hell”. It will be hard work to defend against these forces, but the implications are huge—faithful work is tantamount to opening the doors of heaven. In fact, faithful work is the same as creating heaven on earth. This is the work of a Christian—to respond to and hold back the forces of evil in this world—discrimination, hate, brokenness, violence, exploitation, power seeking and grabbing—and to open the kingdom of heaven—wholeness, love, justice--to everyone. The hardest job in the world, is also the best job in the world.
There are so many ways that other people try to define us, to tell us who we are and describe our experience for us: advertisements in fashion magazines and in other media try to define what it means to be beautiful, both Republicans and Democrats try to define what it means to be a good American, the General Conference tries to define what it means to be a United Methodist. But Jesus reminds us that our definitions need only come from God, the one who loves, validates and knows us fully in all of our complexity.
Today is Mothers’ Day. There is, of course, a standard definition of mother: the woman who gave birth to you. But the video we just watched expands that definition: a mother is a person who loves us, cares for us, nurtures us, cheers us, suffers our pain often worse than we do. And of course, because this video was made by Proctor and Gamble, we’re reminded that mothers also wash our clothes and change our sheets…but what the video doesn’t say is whether the women who were doing the caring were biological mothers or aunts or grandmothers or foster mothers. If we had believed that, we inserted that definition into the video. It wasn’t there. Still, the video is only able to give one glimpse into the definition of a mother. The definition of a mother is so much more complex than a two minute video could ever convey. When we think of the persons who have been our caretakers, our guides, our champions, our mothers, my guess is that a number of different people come to mind. When we think of these persons, we become aware that gender or marital status or sexual orientation or biological connection bequeath no privilege in conferring the title of mother. Mother is a complex construction, a set of duties and expectations that actually no one person could fulfill alone—so I guess it’s lucky that my children have two!
Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks. Our culture is so insistent on defining “mother” as a biological woman who gave birth to you. And yes, that’s one definition. The truth is, “mother” is so much more than a limited definition. Think again about our scripture for today. Jesus doesn’t reject the first responses of the disciples; when they say that he’s John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the Prophets, he just moves on and turns to Peter. In this response he is acknowledging that there may be some truth in what they are saying, but it is limited. Jesus invites us to wrestle with complexity, and to do so with courage and faithfulness, listening for God’s voice. Is this not what was happening when Jacob wrestled with the angel? As Jacob, the middle-aged father and leader prepared to return to the brother he had deceived, he struggled with his own self-definition. Who am I? The scoundrel boy or the wiser man? Of course we know that the answer was and is complex.
Sheltering in place has turned out to be for many an introspective experience. Have you been asking yourself, Who am I? We may be confronted with voices, regrets, insecurities and doubts that want to tell us who we are. But let us not forget that we are part of a church that is the body of Christ on earth. Even in this shelter in place time, we’ve made and procured hundreds of masks delivered to sites in desperate need of them. As part of Consider the Homeless, we’ve helped respond to the food and health needs of persons who are unhoused. We’ve prepared a space in the church to house migrants recently released from unjust detention. A team of saints has reached out to everyone in the Epworth community by phone or email to pray and just check to see if everyone’s doing ok. Countless runs to the grocery store and pharmacy have been made for those who can’t get out. We’ve moved meditation and yoga and communion and prayer online. This is who we are. We are mothers to each other. I’m so grateful that Epworth is my Sangha. The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world. But the truth is that though sometimes it is hard, the joy that comes from serving, from being a part of something bigger than ourselves, eclipses what is hard. This is what God asks of us and who we are. Jesus refused to let anyone but God define him; let us go and do likewise. Happy Mothers’ Day Epworth. Amen.
Special thanks to... Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stonkeing
Contributors: Rev. Brian Adkins, Don Arreola-Burl, Akesa Fakava, Kiana Jardin, Susan Jardin, Orion Lacey, Caroline Lee, Becky Wheat
Rev. Jerry Asheim, Rev. Carletta Aston, Caroline Lee, Michael Martin,
Judy Kriege, Cathryn Bruno, Erin Adachi-Kriege
Video producer: Jacob Wilbur
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
All those who participated by watching from home!