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Pentecost 18 Proper 21B September 26, 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our opening reading from the Book of Esther explains the Jewish feast of Purim, which is a joyous celebration of the freeing of God’s people from a holocaust. The next celebration of this festive holiday will be on March 16 and 17, 2022. It is set in the time of King Xerxes of Persia, who reigned from 485 to 404 BCE. In our passage, he is called King Ahasuerus.

Esther is the heroine of this story. Her ancestors were captured by the Babylonian Empire and taken to Babylon, which has now been conquered by the Persian Empire. She lives with her cousin Mordecai, who has adopted her because her parents have died.  Esther and Mordecai are Jewish. Esther has always kept silent about that fact.

Haman, the king’s right hand man, is extremely anti-Semitic. He has cooked up a plot to have all the Jews killed in all parts of the Persian Empire. By an improbable series of events, Esther has become queen. She has invited the king and Haman to a feast at which she will make a request to the king. Mordecai has kept her updated on Haman’s hateful plans, and Esther has quietly steeled herself to be the person of the hour. Although God is never mentioned in the story, it is clear that God has called her, as God called Moses centuries before, to free her people. 

In our passage for today, Esther tells the truth about Haman’s plans and asks the king to save her people. Her request is granted. Esther goes from a quiet young woman hiding her identity to a courageous leader fighting for the lives of her people.

In our gospel for today, John reports that the disciples saw someone healing in Jesus name, and they tried to stop him because he was not one of their group. Herbert O’Driscoll notes that John does not get credit for “diligently protecting the teacher’s territory.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among Us, p. 117.) What Jesus is saying here is so important. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” If people are doing things to help people and care for people, they are doing God’s work.

O’Driscoll notes that Jesus does not thank John for trying to protect his turf. He writes, ”Instead, there is a gracious but firm correction, suggesting a different way to look at this moment. There is a generosity in these words, an openness to cooperation, a readiness to trust before all the evidence is in. It is a statement about opening doors rather than building walls.” (O’Driscoll, p 117.)

When Jesus talks about “little ones,” sometimes he is talking about children, whom he calls us to love and care for, and sometimes he is speaking about his followers who are not powerful or famous or influential but just ordinary people such as we are. He is calling us to help each other and support each other as we move ahead in building his kingdom.

And then, in pointed language, he calls on us to deal with any obstacles in ourselves which get in the way of following him and helping him build his shalom. And then he calls us to be salt that has not lost its saltiness.  He calls unto be people who are full of life and love, willing to serve others and build his kingdom of peace and harmony.

Our reading from the Letter of James calls us to be a loving and supportive community, to pray for healing for those who are sick, to share our challenges, to support each other on our journeys, to care for each other, and to love each other.

One of the main themes in this passage is the power of prayer. It means so much that we pray for each other. James reminds us of the great prophet Elijah, and how powerful his prayers were. And, finally, James reminds us that we can all help to keep each other on the path, so that we are all walking the Way of Love.

Scholars tell us that our psalm today is a song of pilgrimage. People would sing this song on their way to festivals and observances in Jerusalem. Walter Brueggemann writes, “In this psalm, Israel voices its astonishment and gratitude for God’s wondrous deliverance.” (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching year B, p, 525.)

“Blessed be the Lord! He has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

“Blessed be the Lord! He has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth. We have escape

Esther and Moses and Elijah save their people. Our lord calls us to be open and inclusive rather than clinging to our turf. James calls us to build a community of love and healing.

Perhaps the greatest message for today is how thankful we can be to our loving God, who has saved us all and has brought us together. May we accept with joy the fullness of God’s grace. May we run the race. Loving God, thank you for all your many blessings. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Pentecost 12 Proper 16A August 23, 2020

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

In our opening reading today, we hear one of the most important stories in the Bible. We recall that in last Sunday’s reading, the Pharaoh had recognized Joseph’s gifts of administration, and  God’s people were invited to come to Egypt, where there was plenty of food stored up to help everyone survive the time of famine.

Our reading begins with an important sentence. “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. This king rules on the basis of fear. He sees that the Israelites are more numerous than the Egyptians, and he thinks the Israelites will join his enemies and overthrow him and escape from Egypt. So he forces the Israelites into slavery, and imposes increasingly ruthless burdens upon them.

The king then tells the midwives to be sure that all the Israelite baby boys will die. But the midwives believe in God, and they do not follow the king’s instructions. The king then orders that all the Hebrew baby boys must be killed. Things become worse and worse.

In the midst of this turmoil and suffering, a Levite man marries a woman from the house of Levi. She gives birth to a son. She hides him for three months. Then she knows she has to do something. She gets a papyrus basket and puts tar and pitch on it to make it into a little boat. She puts the beautiful little baby into the little boat and hides it in the reeds beside the great Nile river. The baby’s older sister, Miriam, keeps watch from a distance.

The daughter of Pharaoh comes to the river to bathe. She finds the baby, has pity on him, and concludes that he must be one of the Hebrews’ children. Just as this moment, Miriam comes up and offers to find a nurse for the baby. The king’s daughter accepts the offer.  She knows that her father has ordered the Hebrew baby boys to be killed, yet she saves this little one. The baby Moses will grow up in his own home and will have his very own mother as his nurse. When he grows older, his mother will take him to the king’s daughter, and she will adopt him. God rescues this baby from slavery and death and arranges for him to grow up in the royal palace. This is Moses, who will free his people from slavery. Biblical scholar James Newsome writes of this passage, “The oppressive hand of Pharaoh may be strong, but the redemptive hand of God is stronger still.” (Newsome, Texts for Preaching Year A, p, 454.)

In our epistle for today, St. Paul calls us to offer everything that we have and everything that we are to God. He calls us to allow ourselves to be transformed by the grace of God into the people God calls us to be. Paul encourages us to be humble, and he calls us to think clearly and carefully about things, and to use the faith that God has given us. And then he reminds us that we are members of the Body of Christ. We have different gifts, and we are called to use those gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ, because we are all one in Him.

In our gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” And they give a report on what people are saying. Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, others Jeremiah, others say one of the prophets. And Jesus asks, “”But who do you say that I am?” Without hesitation, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus praises Peter’s faith, and he says that Peter is the rock on which he will build his church. Like us, Peter is not perfect. He jumps into the water, walks a few feet on the water and then begins to sink. He blurts out thoughts of building three booths and preserving the moment of transfiguration when he is with Jesus, James, and John on the mountain. He denies our Lord three times. But in this moment, when our Lord is asking him this crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” 

In these days of Covid 19 and so much turmoil, our readings call us to that depth of faith. Moses’ courageous, resourceful, and faithful mother put her beautiful baby in a little boat that she made herself, and, with unceasing prayer, hoped that God would protect this little one. Miriam stood by the river on constant watch to be sure her little brother was all right. And then, miracle of miracles, the Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe, and this little baby came under her protection. The liberator of God’s people grew up in his own home with his mother, father, and sister, and then, when he was older, was adopted and lived at the palace.

This is how God works through people who have deep, abiding faith.

Moses’ mother and sister, Peter, and so many others who have followed in their footsteps have been holy examples to us because of their deep, powerful faith.

This week, at this time in our journey with and through Covid 19, let us meditate on Moses’ mother and father and sister and on their faith. Let us meditate on the midwives, who courageously followed God instead of the corrupt king. Let us meditate upon the Pharaoh’s daughter, who knew she was going against her father’s wishes in protecting this little baby. And let us meditate on Peter, who is such a wonderful example because we can identify with him. He is so human. He has faults, just as we do. And he has faith. He knows who Jesus is. He stumbles a few times, but in the end his faith is as solid as a rock. Let us pray that we may have that strong faith.

These are not easy times. This is a time for faith, and thanks be to God, the Creator,  who has given us the gift of faith, and the gift of hope, and the gift of love. Thanks be to Jesus, the Redeemer, who has made us members of his Body, the Church, here to share his love with all people. And thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, who is always at work in us and in the world, bringing in God’s shalom of peace harmony, and wholeness. Amen.

May we say the Prayer for the Power of the Spirit.

Pentecost 19 Proper 21B RCL   September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our first reading is from the Book of Esther. It is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus, better known to us as Xerxes I (485-404 B.C.) It was actually written around 150 B.C.

The story is in our Revised Common Lectionary because the RSV was created to let us read and learn about stories of women and other marginalized people in the Bible, texts which had not appeared in our earlier lectionaries.

All of our readings today give us good food for meditation, but I want to focus on the entire story of Esther, a courageous woman who saved her people from genocide.

Esther is a Jew. Several generations earlier, her ancestors had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. Esther had been adopted by her cousin, Mordecai, when her parents died. They are now living in Susa, a city two hundred miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai is a minor official in the king’s court. He tells Esther never to tell anyone that she is Jewish. Esther is also part of the king’s court. She lives in the castle as a member of the king’s harem.

The story begins with the king throwing a party for all the leaders of the kingdom from India to Ethiopia. The party lasts for a week, and on the last day the king, who has had more than enough to drink, wants his wife, Vashti, to come in and dazzle the guests with her beauty. Vashti refuses. The king’s sages tell him that he has to take decisive action to discipline her, or all the women will stop obeying their husbands. King Xerxes dismisses her from her job as queen and holds what is essentially a beauty contest to choose a new wife.  Esther becomes the new queen.

Soon after, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells the king and saves the king’s life. The plotters are hanged on the gallows.

Then Haman, another of the king’s minor officials who is extremely anti-semitic,  and also has a huge ego and a very thin skin, receives a promotion. He becomes the king’s right hand man. The king orders all the other officials to prostrate themselves on the ground whenever Haman approaches. Mordecai refuses to do this. Some of the other officials ask why, and he tells them he is Jewish. The news reaches Haman. In revenge, Haman plans to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed. He convinces the king to issue a proclamation for this genocide, sealing the deal with a huge bribe of ten thousand silver talents.

Mordecai finds out about the decree, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes about the streets wailing. Soon all the Jews are in mourning. Esther’s maids and eunuchs hear about this and tell Esther, who sends a trusted servant to ask Mordecai what is going on.

Mordecai gives the servant a copy of the proclamation and tells him about Haman’s bribe. He asks the servant to convince Esther to appeal to the king and save her people.

Esther is terrified. She knows that the king has a law that you do not go to see him unless you are called. If you approach the king without permission, you can be killed. She asks Mordecai to tell all the Jewish people to fast for three days and pray for her.

With this prayer support, Esther does the unthinkable. She goes to the inner court opposite the king’s hall. She could lose her life for this. The king sees her, calls her into the hall, and asks what she wants. She says she wants to invite the king and Haman to a feast the next day, and at the feast she will have a special request of the king. Shortly thereafter, Haman sees Mordecai at the king’s gate, and Mordecai fails to honor  Haman. By the end of the evening, Haman has decided to build a gallows to hang Mordecai for his insolence.

That night, the king has trouble sleeping, so he asks for the book of records. He reads about how Mordecai warned him about the assassination plot. The king is reminded that Mordecai has saved his life. He asks what has been done to honor Mordecai and finds out that nothing has been done.

The next morning, the king asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman of course thinks the king wants to honor him, so he tells the king that the man should be given royal robes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden, and a crown should be placed on the horse’s head, and an official should lead the horse carrying the honoree through the square of the city proclaiming that this is the man the king wishes to honor. The king tells Haman to go and do all of this for Mordecai.

Then comes our reading. We are at the feast Esther has arranged for Haman and the king. Esther bravely tells the king about the planned genocide. The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai and the king gives Mordecai Haman’s job as his right hand man.

Mordecai sends out a decree that the feast of Purim should be celebrated to honor the Jews’ escape from death.

Esther shows great courage in carrying out her plan. She risks her life and saves her people. She also shows deep faith. What a wise thing—to ask all of her people to fast and pray for her. Those prayers gave her the faith to approach the king.

Haman has great power, and he uses it to promote his anti-Semitic agenda. King Ahasuerus has even greater power, and this time he uses it to promote justice. This little story, only ten chapters in the Hebrew Scriptures, gives us a wonderful example of a courageous woman speaking truth to power and saving many lives. Thanks be to God for people of courage.  Amen.

Pentecost 18 Proper 21B RCL September 27, 2015

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our opening reading, from the Book of Esther, is filled with drama. It tells us about the origins of the feast of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Jews from Haman’s plot to kill them all. Here is some historical background to the story.

Along with many others,  Mordecai, a Jew, is taken captive when king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquers Jerusalem. Mordecai is taken to the city of Susa, where he becomes a respected member of the king’s court and a trusted advisor to the king. His cousin, Esther, becomes an orphan, and Mordecai takes her into his own home.

Through a series of events, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia. We are now in the reign of King Ahasuerus, which is his name in Hebrew. He is perhaps better known as King Xerxes I, who reigned from  486-465 B. C. Haman, a ruthless, arrogant, and anti-semitic member of the court, is plotting to kill Mordecai and all the Jews in the kingdom. With great courage, Esther appeals to the king to stop this genocide. Because of the antisemitism in the kingdom, she has hidden her Jewish identity, but now she ricks everything to save her people.

Her wish is granted, and Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The point of the story is that Esther is a heroine. Like Moses, she has freed her people.

This reading can lead us to all kinds of themes to think about. Our Jewish brothers and sisters suffered the holocaust, one of the greatest horrors in history. Anti-Semitism has no place in the Christian faith. Even today, Jews, Muslims and others are being persecuted in many places. God is a God of love.

The Letter of James is so down to earth, so practical. Are we suffering? What should we do? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. In every circumstance, we should pray.

When we pray, we are asking God to come into the midst of our lives with love and grace.

James says that when we are sick, we should call for the elders of the church to come and anoint us with oil and lay hands on us. Many churches have the laying on of hands and anointing with oil at or after the Eucharist on Sundays. When we are sick or suffering, it is a wonderful thing to share that and ask others to pray for us. James goes on to say that we should confess our sins to one another. In the early Church, this actually happened. People confessed ad received absolution in front of the congregation.

Nowadays, we tend to be more private, but it certainly helps to share our burdens with each other and ask for prayer. We can also confess to each other or we can confess individually to a priest. All of these things lead to spiritual health.

This is one of the wonderful gifts of Grace Church. We do share our burdens with each other. We don’t try to carry them alone. We ask each other to pray for us and for our families. With genuine gratitude to God and the community of faith, we ask for help. We don’t pretend to be perfect. We don’t pretend to be self-sufficient. We ask for help and prayers. And the power of those prayers helps each of us to be more healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And that means that our community of faith is also more healthy, because we are all sharing our burdens and counting on each other and God for help. This is one reason why we do not have strife and division the way James’ community did. Because we know each other as frail and fallible human beings who are trying, with God’s grace, to be faithful followers of Christ, and we are all working together.

Our gospel builds on these themes of God’s love, mercy. and healing. The disciples see someone healing people in Jesus’ name. They ask Jesus whether they should stop the person. Jesus says, absolutely not. If people are doing good things, give them encouragement. Don’t stop them.

He tells them and us not to put barriers in people’s way. If some of these little people are trying to believe in hm, we should help them. We should explain our faith and live our faith in a way that encourages them to believe in Jesus.

And then our Lord tells us that if anything is getting in the way of our following him, we need to get rid of it. Maybe we have an addiction to something. We need to get into recovery. Maybe, like some of his disciples  last Sunday, we are consumed with ambition and we want to be the greatest in his kingdom. We need to revise our thinking. If anything is getting between us and Jesus, we need to ask his help to remove it. Because we want to follow him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

This week is an extraordinary week. Pope Francis has come among us. He is such an extraordinary person, such a holy example, an embodiment of God’s love, mercy, and healing. He has identified himself as someone from an immigrant family and has called us to work together to create an inclusive society in which all persons are treated with respect. He has called us to take climate change seriously and work to protect and preserve our beautiful planet. He has called us to protect the vulnerable people of our world and to work for “reconciliation, peace, and freedom.”

Our beloved bother, Pope Frances lives what he preaches. He causes untold worries for those who are trying to protect him by leaving his Pope Mobile to go out into the crowd and touch people and pray for people who need God’s love and healing. This brings hope and new meaning to people’s lives. To all of our lives. Pope Francis is a living and inspiring example of the points of all our readings today.

May we follow his example.


Pentecost 11 Proper 16A August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Our first reading this morning opens on a somber note: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Joseph is no longer the second in command. We do not know the details, but there has been a shift in power. The new king is threatened by the Hebrew people. They are growing too numerous and he fears their power. The pharaoh enslaves the people and forces them to make bricks and do hard labor.

Then the king moves to genocide. He tells the midwives to kill the boy babies of the Hebrew women the moment they are born. The midwives, our first heroes this morning, are actually named–Shiprah and Puah. These courageous women are not going to commit genocide. They put forth a creative explanation of why they cannot carry out the pharaoh’s orders. Then the king extends his decree to the whole population. He wants these Hebrew boy babies killed. This probably makes us think of King Herod, who , centuries later, will issue a similar order. It also brings to mind so many examples of genocide over all the years of human history. The most recent and alarming example of genocide in our world involves the brutal actions of the group called the Islamic State, or ISIS. They have killed many people, including a courageous journalist and neighbor from New Hampshire, James Foley. We pray for James, and for his family. We pray, also, for God’s guidance for the leaders of the world as they deal with this serious situation.

But back to our story. Sometimes people look at the evil in the world and decide not to bring children into such troubled times. In our story, a Levite man and a woman marry; they are people of hope. They have a son. The woman keeps her son secret as long as she can. and then she makes a little waterproof boat and puts him into it, and hides it in the bulrushes along the Nile. The baby’s sister, Miriam, keeps watch, and the miracle happens. The little one is rescued by the very daughter of the murderous king and is raised in the castle with his own mother to nurse him.

The king’s daughter knows that this is a Hebrew baby, yet she also knows that she will be able to protect this little one. She has her father wrapped around her little finger. Here this young woman, who enjoys every privilege, gives a new life to this little one and to God’s chosen people.

This is a choice we all face. When certain races or nationalities or kinds of people are being oppressed or even killed, we have the choice to realize that all people are human beings who deserve respect. The women in this story all make that choice. Because of their courage, Moses grows up to be the liberator of his people.

In the epistle, Paul is calling us to offer our whole selves to God. Not just our minds, not just an intellectual assent to the tenets of our faith. Not just our emotions. Yes, we are called to believe in God with our minds. We are called to love God with our hearts. But we are called to give all that we are and all that we have to God so that God can work with us and transform us. That is the second part of this reading. First, we have to offer all of ourselves to God, Then we have to allow God to change us, to transform us.

If we do these things, we will begin to realize on a whole new level, that we are members of Christ as our arms and legs and eyes and ears are members of us. We make up the living body of Christ.

Everyone has been given gifts by God, and each gift is equal to the next. Preaching is not more valuable than paying the bills. Teaching is not more valuable than sweeping the floor. Every person and every gift is infinitely precious and beloved by God.

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Herbert O’Driscoll reminds us that this region is way up north near the source of the Jordan River. (The Word Today, Year A. p. 101.) First Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and they report the responses they have heard. But then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Herbert O’Driscoll wonders why Jesus has led the disciples so far north. He theorizes that our Lord leads them to Caesarea Philippi because it is far from their usual world. O’Driscoll says that as Christians, we are being led out of our former world in which the Christian faith was dominant. He writes, “We are being hauled out of the familiar, vaguely Christian culture we were formed by, into a tougher, harsher reality. And here he asks us again, in all sorts of ways and at all kinds of moments, Who do you say that I am?” (The Word Today, p. 102.)

At the end of May, Bishop Tom issued an inspiring statement called Becoming More Missional: The Episcopal Church in Vermont/ AnInvitation to be Part of a Year-Long Journey of Visioning, Discernment and Planning for Tomorrow. Beginning with the Ministry Fair at St, Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday, September 27, continuing with the pre-convention hearings on Vermont Interactive Technologies at 2 PM on Sunday, October 5, (Our group would meet in St. Albans), we in the Diocese of Vermont will be looking at ways in which our Lord is calling us to do mission. There will also be a gathering in our area in early spring.

On a local level, Bishop Tom wrote to me this past June, “It is my hope that during the Spring of 2015, you and the people of Grace Church will enter into a process we might call ‘Focusing on Grace Church’s Missional Ministries.’ This process will involve my office and is meant to take a look at the ongoing and future ministries of Grace Church. I hope this process seems a good idea to you and the congregation.” These are exciting times, and we have much good work to do.

May we again pray our Collect for today: “Grant, O merciful Lord, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Pentecost 10 August 21, 2011

Pentecost 10 Proper 16A RCL August 21, 2011

Exodus 1: 8-2: 10
Psalm 124
Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

As we begin the Book of Exodus, there is a new king in Egypt, a king who does not know Joseph and what a trusted administrator he was. This new king is seriously threatened by the Israelite people because they are growing and prospering. He is afraid that the Israelites will ally with an enemy of Egypt and fight against him.  So the king enslaves the Israelites and subjects them to hard labor.

Herbert O’Driscoll wisely points out that all along the West coast of the United States and Canada, we did the same thing to people of Japanese origin during World War II. This is a pattern of human sin that crops up over and over again.

One reason why the Revised Common Lectionary came into being was that our former readings did not include much about women and children.  The king tells the Hebrew midwives that they should kill any boy babies. With great courage, the midwives refuse to do this.  Then the king tells all his people that they should throw all Hebrew boys into the Nile. A Levite man and woman marry and they have a son. The mother and the boy’s older sister again show great courage. When the mother can no longer hide the child, she makes a little boat for him by waterproofing a basket and hides him in the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Here we have one of our favorite Sunday School stories, the tale of Moses in the Bulrushes. The boy’s older sister keeps vigil watching the basket. The king’s daughter comes and finds the child. By this time he is crying and she takes pity on him. She immediately recognizes that this is a Hebrew child, but this does not get in the way of her compassionate response. Her maid secures the services of the child’s mother as nurse, so now the young Moses will be living in the royal palace with his mother nearby under the protection of the king’s daughter. Eventually, the Pharaoh’s daughter adopts Moses as her son.

Through the actions of these courageous women, the liberator of the people Israel  is snatched from the jaws of death and is raised in the very palace of the oppressive king.

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This area is about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It has been the site of worship centers dedicated to Baal, the god of the Canaanites, and the Greek god Pan. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. Then it became a recreation area for the Roman army. This is an area close to the border of Lebanon. The Jordan River has its source here. So this is an area which has held temples to many gods and is a center for the occupying army. It reverberates with the echoes of religious and secular power.
But here, God’s shalom will be renewed, a very different kind of kingdom.

Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter immediately says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Wow! Jesus blesses Peter for this, and then he says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  There is a pun here. The Greek word for Peter is Petros, meaning Rock. The Greek for rock is petra, so the sentence would go, “You are Rock, Petros, and on this rock, petra, I will build my church.

For centuries, this passage was used to justify the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church. Tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and the Bishop of Rome became very prominent, as Rome was the center of the empire.  But now, after years of ecumenical scholarship, we can read this passage as indicating the kind of faith we are called to show. Jesus is asking each of us today, “Who do you think I am?”

We also need to be clear here that Jesus did not mean the church structure we have today. In fact, I think he might look askance at all this hierarchy. The New Testament in written in Greek, and the word translated as “church” is the Greek ecclesia. The Aramaic word is quahal, meaning a fellowship and harking back to that original fellowship, that covenant community which was formed as God’s people made their way from slavery to freedom in the wilderness. This is especially meaningful to us as we gather in faith in the post Christendom era, and it makes that important link between us in what may seem a wilderness and God’s people in that original journey of liberation.

As Paul says so eloquently in Romans and other places, we are the Body of Christ. We are here because, in our own ways, each of us has answered that question of Jesus,  “Who do you say that I am?” In our own ways, in our own words, or perhaps without words because it is so difficult to express, we are here because we want to follow Jesus.

Many of our contemporary theologians are pointing out something which I think is very helpful. They are saying that faith is not so much about what we believe on a cognitive level but rather what we do. It’s not a matter of intellectual assent as much as it is a matter of discipleship. Does Jesus mean something to us in our lives? Do we want to follow Jesus? Do we want to try to be like Jesus? My answer to these questions is a very clear Yes, and I think your answer is the same. Otherwise we would not be here.

Then the next question is, Do we want to be part of a community of people who want to follow Jesus, who want to have the values of compassion, inclusiveness, healing, and justice-making that we see in his ministry? Again, I think most of us would say, Yes, we do. We want to build a community like that. That’s why we are here.

Well, that’s what Peter was saying, and that’s what all the disciples were saying and doing.

It’s worth thinking about, and it is worth finding some quiet time to think of our answer at this time. Jesus is asking, “Who do you say that I am?” And, as we form our answer in words, if we are able to do so, we also know that it is our feet and our hands and our hearts and our spirits that give the real answer as we carry his compassion into every aspect of our lives.