Sunday, August 27, 2017

Typical Humans

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 16A [Track 2], The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Isaiah. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Listen! The prophet is speaking. Listen! Isaiah has words for us today. Across 27 centuries, he is speaking to a people he never could have imagined on a continent he never dreamed of. Isaiah is speaking to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, Washington, in the United States of America.

Isaiah is addressing “you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD.” Could this mean you? His words were originally intended for God’s Chosen People in exile. For generations, they have been under the heel of their oppressors. Isaiah announces that God is about to set them free.

But first, the prophet sets the stage with a brutally honest assessment: “The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats.” All things will come to an end. Death will come—and not even with dignity. Futility is the dominant flavor of life. If this isn’t the case for you and me, we are anomalies in human history.

Isaiah is addressing typical humans, and typical humans are scared most of the time. We fear, rightly or wrongly, that someone is trying to take away what little we have, and we will turn violent to protect ourselves. Typical humans do not trust that God is at work in our lives, or that we can depend on each other for help, because personal experience has demonstrated that we can’t. Typical humans march in the streets of Charlottesville, armed to the teeth, stubbornly defending the tiny world we think we understand while threatening a world of people who are even more vulnerable than we are.

God loves typical humans.

You may protest. You may say, what about love, heroism, patience, trust, selflessness? Typical humans have these things too, but let’s admit it: they are fragile features that fail when they are not carefully nurtured. We can and do develop virtues. But always, lingering just under the surface, hopelessness and fear wait to burst out against a creation that apparently wants us all dead. Don’t expect any human being to act fearlessly, including yourself. And when your virtues do shine through, be surprised and grateful. Thank God for being so obviously present and involved in our lives.

For God is involved, as Isaiah proclaims: “My salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” Isaiah assures us that even while God allows human suffering to occur, God is present in and beyond all our finalities.

Isaiah’s words are intended as both comfort and challenge. Change is terrifying, and suffering is ubiquitous. But look! “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” Isaiah speaks to you. You were dug from the quarry of God’s universe. You were hewn from the rock of humanity. You are “a chip off the old block,” even when circumstances have placed you in exile. Trace your ancestry. You are a child of Abraham, at least by adoption. We are just typical humans, but God loves us and wants a relationship with us. We are God’s people, and God has made covenants with us.

In her book Your Faith, Your Life, Jenifer Gamber writes that God’s covenants are not just practical, but transformational. “We see the world through new eyes, through the lens of the covenant. Instead of seeing the world as indifferent, random, hostile, and threatening, we see life as purposeful, relational, and inviting. God’s covenant shapes our every action and cannot be dissolved.”[1]

God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would show everyone in the world what God is really like. Through Moses, God made another covenant: a basic set of laws to show us how to be God’s people in a way that others can best see God through us. God made a covenant with David, that long after his own dynasty, a descendant of David would once again sit on the throne of Israel. And then Jesus invited us into a New Covenant prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … They shall all know me … for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[2] God keeps all these covenants with us to give us hope.

And so we come to today’s gospel reading. After much calling, teaching, and healing, both among and beyond the Jewish people, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

Thanks to Isaiah’s writings, first-century Jews expected a Messiah. This would be a descendant of David who would fulfill that covenant promise and restore the kingdom of Israel. This context is likely at the front of Peter’s mind—Peter, a child of Abraham, a member of God’s covenant people. All in a flash, he sees, and then he speaks, in typical-human and typical-Peter fashion, hardly knowing what he is confessing: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”

And Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”

Now, Peter’s given name was Simon, and he may well have been the son of a man named Jonah. But in another gospel, Jesus calls Peter “Simon son of John”[3]—not Jonah. So there is not universal agreement among the gospel writers on the name of Peter’s father.

Why does Jesus say “Simon son of Jonah,” especially at this moment? I wonder if he might be intentionally connecting Peter with the prophet Jonah, the hesitant, stubborn, would-be prophet who initially refused God’s call. Jonah was a coward who failed God and ran away. But God kept appointing living beings—a fish, a plant, a worm—to set Jonah straight. God taught Jonah humility, submission, and in the end, trust, by consistently frustrating Jonah’s cowardly agenda.

Adam de Costa, The Denial of St. Peter(source: Wikimedia Commons).
Peter isn't out of the woods yet.
I think that Jesus is helping Peter trace his ancestry, not genetically, but in story. Simon son of Jonah is “a chip off the old block”—he’s just like his mythical ancestor who kept failing and being called up short. And this is why Jesus chooses Peter specifically—because “flesh and blood has not revealed this” to him, but God the Father. Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah not by his own insight, but by the Holy Spirit working through him. Now he is to become the Rock. The Church will be built on rocky people like Peter who fail and who then open themselves to God’s judgment and grace. The Church will be built not on extraordinarily virtuous humans, but on typical humans.

[Did you hear the story this week about William Aitcheson? Struck by the naked bigotry in Charlottesville, he shared his story publicly for the first time. He confessed that 40 years ago, he was a member of the KKK, but then he dropped that life and become a Roman Catholic priest. “I’m sorry,” he said publicly. “I have no excuse, but I hope you will forgive me … We should not forget. Our actions have consequences and while I firmly believe God forgave me—as he forgives anyone who repents and asks for forgiveness—forgetting what I did would be a mistake.”[4] Father William has taken leave from his position so the church can decide what to do about him. It took him 40 years to do it, but he did it. Here is a typical human, one of those rocky heroes on whom the church is built.]

My fellow typical humans, who are your ancestors? Do you claim cowardly Jonah as your forefather in the faith? Or Jacob, who plotted and schemed and cheated? Or David, who screwed up and screwed around and repented? Or Sarah, who snorted at the notion that God could give her a child? Or St. Paul, who, like Father William, persecuted Jesus’ followers and then did a 180?

My fellow typical humans, who is your Messiah? Does he shore up power for himself and those like him? Or is he a suffering servant who shows us how to be truly human in any kingdom: to love, to care, to trust, to protect the vulnerable, and to sacrifice even for the sake of those who just don’t get it? Does your Messiah seek vengeance, or compassion?

My fellow typical humans, what is your Rock? Is it some worldly method of success, wealth, power, respect, security? Has God built the church on such a rock? Or does God instead call the rockiest of people—losers, infidels, failures, racists, cowards, drunks, crazies, abusers, fearmongers, and jerks? You know, the fewer virtuous credentials we can claim, the less likely it is for people to mistake God’s deeds for our own.

Oh, but this is hard, isn’t it? We don’t want to be typical humans. We want God to make us exceptional. And God will do so—I really believe that! The thing is that the path to holiness leads directly through the valley of the shadow of death—a valley that we will all go through, by the way, not just the best of us.

And this is where the Church stands. The Church is not, in and of itself, the Kingdom of God. It is the place where we trace our ancestry in story, and it is a sign of God’s continuing presence among us. It can be a catalyst for deeper courage and deeper love. The Church is not a group of people who have it all figured out. We are merely those who find seeking after God not only to be worthwhile, but to be the most important thing in life. We are those who are willing to stand in the rubble of our failures and announce clearly, “God is here, too!” We are those who have found love in a hopeless place.

We typical humans who are baptized members of the Church are learning that the only God who could ever love us is completely atypical. We pattern our lives after a Messiah who sought not vengeance, but compassion—not perfection, but growth. We succeed by failing, because our vulnerabilities make us loveable, and our receptivity makes us reliable. Failure and suffering will happen to all of us anyway, but growth is optional. Some people spend their entire lives saying no to growth. Will you choose to undergo it?

Listen to the prophet! Isaiah has words for us today. Listen to the Messiah! Jesus is speaking to us in the United States, and right here in Bellingham. Are you paying attention, my fellow typical humans? “The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats,” and God is loving and saving every one of us typical humans. You, too.

[1] Jenifer Gamber & Bill Lewellis, Your Faith, Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 22.
[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)
[3] John 1:42, John 21:17
[4] New York Times. Other perspectives on Aitcheson began to emerge after I prepared this sermon, most notably this, which suggests that Aitcheson came forward not out of conscience, but out of fear or what was about to be revealed publicly. Also see this and this. If I were to preach this sermon again, I would reconsider my use of Aitcheson’s story as an example of “rocky heroism.” Actions have consequences, indeed.

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