Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church and Chapel in the Pines in Three Lakes, WI.
By now I’ve answered the question, “How did you become a pastor?” enough times that I almost have a script memorized in my head. It’s what we call our “call story”, or the story of how our lives led up to the point at which we knew God was calling us to be ministers of Word and Sacrament or, in the case of Deacons, Ministers of Word and Service.
The way I tell it (and no, I’m not going to give you my whole call story) is that as I lived my life, God slowly closed off alternate pathways until the path I’m on now was pretty much the only path left.
Back in high school, when I was totally carefree, I was convinced I’d follow in the steps of a hero I adored and become a band director and a music teacher. When I applied for college, that’s what I was looking for. It’s why I went to Capital University to study under Jim Swearingen, who is a legend in the music education world. I was pretty sure I knew where my life was going. Yeah, people had said I’d be a good pastor, but that’s not what I was interested in.
Shows how much I know, doesn’t it? It wasn’t a year before things started to crack and fall apart. For one, music education required a level of dedication and practice to my musical craft that I simply didn’t have. There are actually quite a number of things I can imagine myself doing for six hours a day, including very constructive things, but playing my tuba or studying music scores just isn’t one of them.
I also discovered that while I love teaching, I would not survive in our education system. I didn’t enjoy my education classes at all. I hated my field visits, not because they themselves were bad, but because I could no longer imagine myself doing that work.
Finally, half way through my sophomore year and having failed a class with a C, just before Christmas break I wrote a letter to Jim Swearingen explaining that I was dropping out of the Music Education program. It was the scariest letter to date I have ever written. I went home that break and had to figure out what I was going to do when I got back, because now, I needed a new major.
I ended up taking a general Music major and picked up a religion minor. And the more I had conversations with my professors in the Religion and Philosophy Department, the more they urged me to consider going to seminary. I still wasn’t convinced, but I was at least willing to hear them out.
Eventually, I declared a religion major simply because I could. And as graduation approached, I grew more and more anxious. I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated. I had no career plans. I had no savings left. I was thinking about seminary. But I knew that once graduation came, the stability I’d enjoyed for the last four years of my life was gone. It was terrifying.
Graduation came. I moved back in with my parents and started working construction and restaurant jobs. When I moved back out to Columbus a few months later to live with a friend and her fiancé, I was still lost and trying to figure out what I was going to do.
Finally, after putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, I figured I had nothing else to lose and applied to seminary. By some miracle, I was accepted, and we started orientation.
I don’t remember much about that first day, except a session where all the new students stood in a circle in the chapel and introduced ourselves to each other. But what I do remember is getting home that night, falling into my bed, and thinking, “This is it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. This is exactly what I was supposed to do.”
Now, it’s not always been a rosy journey since that point. Some of you have heard some of my stories about struggles in seminary and after I graduated. But I hold onto that memory, that feeling, that statement: “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s important to hold onto statements like that. It’s important to be reminded of them.
When Jesus and his disciples visit the city of Caesarea Philippi, what happens there becomes one of these moments. I’ve been to Caesarea Philippi. It’s the site of what was once a massive spring gushing out of a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan (the spring still exists, and is a wonder to behold, but it no longer gushes as it once did because of an earthquake). Here, Jesus sees the convergence of three worlds: the Greek, the Judean, and the Roman.
It’s been a long journey to get there. Jesus has been traveling through Judea and Galilee, preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising. He’s made friends and allies, but also enemies. So far, no one’s really asked the question that’s on his mind: “Who do people think that I am?”
When he asks his disciples this question, they posit a number of theories: some say that he’s Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet who’s returned from heaven to lead them. Some say he’s the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who had just been executed (don’t ask me how they got that idea, I don’t know). Despite everything Jesus has been doing, it seems no one really gets it.
And then he turns to his disciples and asks them: “Okay, but, who do you say that I am?” I can almost hear the anticipation in his voice. I can almost feel his anxiety, his caution. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the disciples before, you’ll know that for the most part, they are a group of people who just never seem to get it. Would they stay true to form, Jesus might wonder? Would they disappoint again?
But Peter has his moment. Peter, who I usually call the dunce of group. Peter, who better resembles Kelso from That 70s Show than he does Bill Nye the Science Guy, actually comes through. He gets it. When Jesus asks that fateful question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
I can almost feel the warmth of Jesus’s smile. They have been listening! They have been paying attention! All of his work hasn’t been for nothing.
Because here, at Caesarea Philippi, the disciples glimpse what’s so important. Here, even for just a moment, they understand who Jesus is, who God is, and why Jesus came in the first place. Here, more than anywhere else during Jesus’s lifetime, the disciples are the best that they can be.
Now, it doesn’t last. The very next story in the Gospel according to Matthew—literally, today’s story ended at verse 20 and the next one starts at verse 21—Peter goes and screws it up, gets called Satan, and basically returns to his regular, stupid self. But this moment, this strong, defiant, truthful proclamation of Jesus’s identity out of the mouth of Peter sets things in motion that can’t be stopped.
It’s after this that Jesus starts his journey back toward Jerusalem, his last journey to the city. It’s after this that he gets into real trouble with the religious authorities of his time, and they start plotting to kill him. It’s after this that he shows the world what it means to be the Son of the Living God and the chosen of God—it means suffering and dying, all in the name of love. This confession of Peter’s is a turning point in the Gospel story that sets everything into motion.
And yeah, Peter screws it up, and the disciples screw it up, and sometimes I wonder if Jesus never did think he made a mistake in the people he’d chosen to follow him. But this moment, this bit of truth-telling, this watershed event, can’t be taken away. It’s important to remember for the disciples, and it’s important to remember for us.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this thing we call being a Christian. In my church for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we lay out in our constitutions what it looks like to live out our baptismal callings. We are to:
Worship God in all that we do,
Proclaim the Gospel,
Carry out the Great Commission to make disciples,
Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, which includes caring for the sick, advocating for justice for all, working for peace among the nations, standing in solidarity with the poor and the powerless,
Nurture the faith of our community,
Get along with other Christians,
Provide regular worship services,
Provide pastoral care,
Teach the Word of God,
Be witnesses to Christ’s words and deeds,
Challenge, equip, and support all members as they try to carry out their calling.
It’s a lot to keep track of it. It’s a lot of work, being a Christian. And a lot of the time, it’s too much to do all at once.
One of my key failings is that I’m easily overwhelmed. I’ve never been sicker in my life than when I was trying to write my senior thesis in college, because I was on a ridiculously shortened schedule. When I’d sit down to write, I’d stare at the blank page, then remember that I had to have something like 40 or 50 pages by the time I was done. The thought alone would literally overwhelm me, and I’d have a breakdown.
People who cared about me, my friends and family, would remind me, constantly, that I could do it. That one page at a time was how every paper was written, no matter the speed. One page at a time.
Sometimes, we only have enough strength to be Christians one page at a time. And we are Christians one page at a time:
When we feed the hungry, through programs like the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and Caritas.
When we take those few minutes a day to open up the Bible and read a little bit of God’s word, even if we don’t understand what it means.
When we confront our own biases and sins, recognizing that all human beings are in need of forgiveness, even us.
When we speak out against injustice, even and especially when it makes us uncomfortable.
When we actually talk about our faith, and aren’t ashamed of it.
One step at a time, like Peter.
One step, one page, one day at a time. That’s what the Christian life, the life of the disciple takes. Each day, each moment is a single page. We may not be able to do it all at once–to squeeze a week of Christian discipleship into one day a week, or a life of discipleship into a single month. But we can do it one day at a time, one page at a time.