September 16, 2018
“A Question for You”
Sara Maitland, a British author, tells about an interesting experience she had, in her book A Big Enough God: “A few years ago, just a day or so after a York Minister was struck by lightning, I was on my way to the local post office near my home, which is in a wretchedly poor part of Hackney, when I met an elderly woman. She was most distressed by this bolt from the heavens, this “act of God” as the insurance people call it (which alone gives you pause for thought). She was very upset. Did I think, she asked, that God had done it on purpose, as some newspapers were speculating? The post was about to leave, and I was in a hurry, but how can anyone resist such a subject? No, I said, I didn’t really think so, did she? No, she said, she didn’t really think that God was like that. There was a pause, and I was poised to escape. Then she added, in what I can only describe as a tone of affectionate criticism, “But [God] should have been more careful; [God] should have known there’d be talk.’” (pp. 131-132)
The conversation with Jesus today sounds a bit like a poll. What are people saying about me? Who do they say that I am? I’m sure he was curious. What must people think? We like to think that we reach a certain age where we no longer care what people think, but I wonder at times if that is even possible. It sounds as if Jesus wants to know what people are thinking, but then he asks the question that really matters to him, “Who do YOU say that I am?” He is saying to the disciples, “you are the ones who know me. You see me in action day after day. You see me when I am at my best and doing amazing things. You see me when I am spent and crabby. I want to know what YOU think about me.”
I experienced that question in text study this week as a bit of a conversation stopper. I wondered who we say Jesus is. We are here after all. We want to have a relationship with him. We may cultivate that very carefully or we may intend to cultivate it and never quite get around to it. So, I asked the question “Who do you say Jesus is?” to the group. It got quiet. Then three people responded:
He is a person to show us how to live
A good example of human and divine
I think this is an important question for all of us. We are sitting in this room. We could be anywhere else, but we are here. We are a church that follows Jesus. We need to ask ourselves who we say Jesus is. Jesus is real when we genuinely seek to know and be known by him. And there are times when he comes to life in powerful ways.
Last Sunday, I told you about a project we are working on with our neighboring churches to hire a full-time social worker to respond to the needs of those who stop by our church needing assistance. Each partner church contributes $5,000 and ABQ Heading Home Director Dennis Plummer has committed to finding the rest of the funding. I believe we are called to be part of this, but we don’t have the money. Our $45,000 deficit is debilitating. As I reflected on the Syrophoenician woman talking to Jesus in my sermon, I felt like I was talking with him and he was so real in that moment when I dared to talk honestly with him. I told you about our lack of funds for this project and you responded with more than enough money for the position. It was a stunning reminder that there is indeed more than enough.
To think about this question in another context…I did a wedding last night. I am doing another wedding tomorrow evening. When I meet with couples to prepare for marriage we talk about a lot of things – money, conflict, religion, friends, family, children, communication, sex – but we don’t address this question head on: “Who do you say your beloved is?” I want to do that from now on. I think it is an important way for them to reflect on the person they are committing themselves to. Sure, they need to know how to handle money and communicate and be intimate and fight and all that goes into a marriage. But how can they take vows to one another if they can’t answer the question, “Who do you say your beloved is?”
Notice where Jesus takes the conversation next: “if you are going to follow me, you have to be willing to lose your life.” In other words, things are going to get hard, very hard, harder than you can even dream. Are you all in? In order to be in, you must know who I am. It is only in knowing me, really knowing me that we can do this impossible thing together. Jesus is calling us to be all in and he is saying being all in means investing everything we have in this relationship.
I guess we can say that about the church. Things will be hard. We will take a man into sanctuary. We will close a preschool. We will have a huge deficit and struggle to make payroll and we will take money from our investments to pay our bills.
With every difficult decision or crisis, we have to decide if we are in. It is much easier to be in when we can answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” Who do you say First Congregational is? The answer to that question is real when we answer it out of our relationship to this church and to one another.
In fact, we are giving intentional energy to deepening our relationships here. We went on a camping trip to connect with one another, with God, and with creation. We are hearing stories each week from our members. We have been having one on one conversations to get to know one another. I have heard some don’t want to participate in these conversations because they are contrived. I will say that in fact they are unapologetically contrived. They are contrived because we are committed to building relationships in this community. When we hit the hard times together, we weather them better by knowing one another.
Herman Ostry, a farmer in Bruno, Nebraska, bought a piece of land and a barn, and soon after a nearby creek rose, and the barn was under twenty-nine inches of water. He half-jokingly said to his family, “I bet if we had enough people, we could pick up that barn and carry it to higher ground.” To his surprise, one of his sons, Mike, started thinking about it, and by counting the number of boards, timbers, and nails, he estimated that the barn weighed about 19,000 pounds. Mike figured that three hundred forty-four people would only have to lift about fifty-five pounds to carry the barn to higher ground. But how do that many people get a grip on the barn in order to lift it? Mike ingeniously designed a grid of steel tubing and attached it to the inside and outside of the barn. This provided handles for the barn raisers.
As the town of Bruno was planning its centennial activities, Herman suggested a barn raising as part of the celebration. As the centennial approached word of the barn raising spread far beyond Bruno. On the morning of the lift, July 30,1988, nearly four hundred thousand people from eleven states were there. When everything was ready, Herman counted, one, two, three. The 344 people lifted the barn, and it rose like nothing at all. The crowd cheered and applauded as they carried that 9-ton barn fifty yards up a hill in just three minutes. How'd they do it? They got enough people to work towards a common goal, spreading the load evenly and equally, and at the same time, with one heart, one mind, one purpose, one direction and two hands they were able to accomplish the impossible. George MacDonald once noted that one draft horse can move two tons of weight. Two draft horses in harness, working together, can move twenty-three tons of weight. Heavy lifting is best done in community.
Our relationships aren’t a luxury. They are the lifeblood of this congregation. They are the lifeblood for us as individuals. We need to know one another. We need to be able to answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” We need to know that it will cost us to be in relationship, but we will find that when we come together, we can lift what seems impossible. We are fundraising as much as we can, and I have to say that our $45,000 deficit feels impossible. But I see God at work every direction I look, and I know that God is bigger than all of this. And so, I will continue to follow the one who calls us to do impossible things. Let’s do this impossible thing together and know that God is with us.