Despite the fact that the temperature this day will remain stuck in the single digits here in South Windsor, there is at least one thing that could happen to any one of us today that will cause us to break out in a sweat. Namely, if you or I have a sudden memory or a sudden flashback to a moment in life when we were totally embarrassed. Or totally anxious.
The more dramatic or traumatic the memory is, the more profusely we will sweat just thinking about it. Especially if that memory temporarily shattered our self-confidence or somehow damaged our self-esteem…
Go back with me in your mind to high school or college, for example. You remember that one class which was never your favorite. Partly because your teacher or your professor rarely eased up on the homework. Every single night there were pages and pages of a book you had to read. Or endless questions you had to answer out of a textbook. Or countless problems you had to solve using various numbers and equations.
And sure enough there came a night when you spent too much time at a party or you got caught up watching tv. Maybe you were talking with a friend for too long or you had a personal issue you were trying to work through. For whatever reason, you didn’t do the work you were supposed to do the night before.
Of course, as Murphy’s Law would dictate, the next day was the particular day when the teacher decided he or she was going to call on students in the class as a way of going through the lesson plan. It could be that student participation was something the teacher believed in and tried to incorporate into classes frequently. Or on this occasion it was a surprise and the teacher was trying to catch students off guard to see whether they were keeping pace with the assignments.
You know how teachers and professors casually stroll out in front of their desks and you just know what’s coming next. Armed with a relatively obscure question about the initial causes of the Civil War or the subconscious themes Mark Twain returned to again and again in his novels or the precise chemical compounds that wind up causing global warming, the teacher asked for volunteers to raise their hands.
If no one raised their hands, that’s when your physical reaction started. Sweaty palms, dry mouth, slight or even pronounced body tremors. And knowing you had no idea the answer to the question being asked, you had two choices as you sat at your desk. Either take a deep breath and sit there without moving a muscle, hoping the teacher might mistake you for a statue and call on someone else. Or look down on your desktop and start shuffling papers around. Fiddle with your pen or type away on your laptop. Pull out your calculator and thumb through your notebook as if you were doing it with a sense of purpose. All the while trying hard to look less ignorant and less clueless than someone else nearby.
I have to say neither of those two options tended to work very well. Whether it’s random luck or years of experience, most teachers and professors have a way of singling out the person in the class who’s totally unprepared and does not want to be called on. It has to be a kind of sixth sense some teachers have…sort of like a lion targeting the slowest wildebeest out on the African plain.
And when you were that poor, unprepared person who was inevitably called upon for the answer, you once again had two choices. Admit you didn’t do the work and take your medicine right up front. Or attempt to bluff your way through an answer in such a way that neither the teacher nor your classmates would burst into spontaneous laughter or derision…
If you can relate in any way to the kind of embarrassment and anxiety I’m describing, you have a window into today’s Gospel lesson. A story where Jesus asked his disciples a pointed question. “Who do people say that I am?” And while Jesus waited for an answer, every one of the disciples squirmed and fidgeted and looked away hoping that Jesus would call on someone else.
After an awkward period of silence, the disciples figured they would answer Jesus by repeating the scuttlebutt they had heard over the course of their travels through Galilee. “Well, some people say that you are John the Baptist?” “And other people tell us that you are the prophet Elijah.” “We’ve even heard a few people who are convinced you are the prophet Jeremiah?”
All of that third person feedback was probably mildly interesting to Jesus…but not exactly what Jesus was driving at. So Jesus changed the question. By one word, in fact. But that one small word made a huge impact. Instead of asking his disciples “who do people say that I am?’ Jesus changed the question to “who do you say that I am?”
Hearing Jesus up the ante, the squirming and the fidgeting and the stray looks on the faces of the disciples immediately turned into cold sweat and dry mouths and sheer panic. Please don’t call on me, Jesus. Please don’t call on me, Jesus…
It’s amazing how much things change when anyone puts the word “you” into a question. The moment that word is inserted into a question or a statement, it’s almost impossible to find any wiggle room or gain any distance from what’s being asked. Not to mention the one who’s doing the asking.
Since today happens to be Valentine’s Day, what I’m pointing out is the difference between somebody who talks to you about love and someone who tells you they love you. Noted poet Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem to an unexpressive lover which began with the line, “To love me is one thing; to tell me you love me is another.”
Therein lies the difference I believe Jesus was hinting at. It’s one thing to talk about Jesus based on what others have told you…the word on the street, so to speak. It’s another thing to talk about Jesus out of a sense of personal passion and conviction.
“Who do you say that I am?” While some of the disciples stood there like statues and other disciples looked up toward the sky or down at the ground as if they were concentrating and thinking and reflecting, Peter jumped into the awkward silence.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
And lo and behold something in those words and something in the way Peter said them touched Jesus. Instead of some generic, canned response, Peter offered a statement of faith that was personal and genuine and full of conviction. So much so that Jesus replied to Peter in turn, “Blessed are you!”
In addition to being Valentine’s Day, this Sunday also happens to be the first Sunday in Lent. And it seems to me that the season of Lent starts with a question. But the question Lent starts with is not a third person question. “Who do people say that Jesus is?” You know the people out there in the world…family and friends and colleagues and neighbors in this community. Who do they say?
Nor does Lent really start with a communal question. “Who do we say that Jesus is?” I’m not saying that question isn’t important. By what we proclaim and what we do as Christian people of faith, this Wapping church community makes important statements all the time about who we say Jesus is.
Actually, the real question at the beginning of Lent is a personal one. “Who do you say Jesus is?” “And who do I say Jesus is?” Do you believe Jesus is the Messiah who comes into the world to redeem and save each one of us? Is Jesus the healer who promises to knit together each one of us and the world in the places where we are broken? Is Jesus a teacher who fills us with wisdom and guidance for the living of our days? Is Jesus a friend who offers us a hand to hold onto and a shoulder to lean on when we’re feeling lonely and lost? Is Jesus a prophet who leads us forward in the struggle for peace and justice? Is Jesus a source of light and hope, providing inspiration to all who call on his name and seek to follow in his footsteps? Or for you, is Jesus all or some combination of the images above?
Avoiding that singular, personal, pointed question runs the risk of dulling our faith. It causes a lukewarm faith where we’re simply going through the motions and not living with any sense of purpose or commitment. It doesn’t get us to the places in our lives and in our hearts where we literally hunger for God.
When Jesus asks you and me who he is, can we answer with a fire in our belly and a twinkle in our eye and a smile that spreads from cheek to cheek? Can we answer Jesus with the kind of passion that lets Jesus know much we love him and how eagerly we long to feel God’s presence? Are we willing to answer Jesus with the kind of strong conviction that dictates how we make decisions and how reach out to others and how we serve with humility and how we spend our time and our money and how we live the one life we have been given?
Yes, the question might cause you to break out into a sweat. But do your best to answer the question anyway. Yes, the question might make you feel vulnerable, embarrassed, and put on the spot. Nevertheless, try to answer the question anyway. Yes, you might be tempted to look up the answer in a book or ask a friend or keep your mouth shut until Jesus turns and asks someone else. But pray and reflect and listen and seek to answer the question anyway.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is waiting for a response…Amen.