August 27, 2023, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

“Who do you say I am?”

Br. Eldridge Pendleton was my spiritual director for 20 years, until his death in 2015. One of the things he told me early on is that he liked to start each day by asking himself, “Who do I need God to be for me today?”  He understood that God is infinitely more than we can imagine, and that God loves us enough to meet us where we are, to be available to us as we are, day by day by day. 

Years ago I started using Br. Eldridge’s question at the start of the various workshops I oversaw in the prison: “Who do you need God to be for you today?”

Some of the answers over the years include:

  • the One who has my back
  • my Muscle
  • Lover of my soul
  • my faithful Friend
  • Great Spirit
  • my Stability and my Courage
  • the Storm that rocks my life

One of the books that’s part of my morning reading these days is called The Art of Pausing, and it includes 99 haikus, each designed, as the introduction says, “to illuminate one of the 99 names of God referred to in sacred texts.” The introduction goes on to say, “According to tradition, the 100th name of God cannot be known or spoken.” —  And yet, if you go online and google “Names of God,” you’ll come across an array of websites that offer a lot more than 100 – I found one that lists 967 names for God, all in alphabetical order.

But no matter how long the list is, I want to echo what I once heard Richard Rohr say, “I think God is bigger than that.” Bigger than any list.

So when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” again, there are plenty of answers besides the primary one that Peter gives: “You are the Son of the living God.” In John’s gospel alone, for example, Jesus himself names himself as:

  • the bread of life
  • the light of the world
  • the door of the sheep
  • the good shepherd
  • the resurrection and the life
  • the way, the truth, and the life
  • the true vine

And the rest of the New Testament contains even more names for Jesus. Over the centuries, other writers have added new and sometimes startling answers to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?”

Take, for example, the 18th Century hymn titled “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” One of its verses reads:

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Then there’s the contemporary poet, Christian Wiman, who writes that “Christ… is a shard of glass in your gut.” He goes on to explain that “Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and uplifts you, but here in what appalls and offends.” In other words, God is here in all situations and in all people, even those we might label “other” – perhaps especially there.

When I hear people announcing, “Jesus is my personal savior,” I find myself wondering whose savior they intend to be, how they plan to save and tend others in Jesus’ name – if they know the cost that comes with claiming Jesus as one’s savior. Because being saved doesn’t mean being safe.

It matters how we answer Br. Eldridge’s question, “Who do you need God to be for you today?” or Jesus’ questions, “Who do you say I am?” – It matters because our answer should inform our actions.

If I say, “Jesus is the apple tree,” for example, I’m connecting Jesus to the created world, and I should find ways to care for this good earth in our time of climate disasters, whether it’s through what I do at home, through our Earth Care team, or in political action.

If I say that Jesus is “a shard of glass in the gut,” it implies that I’m pierced by a deep and painful awareness of the immediate needs of those around me, whether it’s my neighbor who has just lost her wife, or the asylum seekers who just arrived in Brunswick from the Expo Center in Portland.

So what is my answer? Who do I say Jesus is?

Twenty years ago, I took part in an icon-writing retreat where all the participants followed a formula to paint the same icon of Jesus holding an open book. At night we were told to pray and ponder what words we wanted to write in that book, what we heard Jesus saying to us. Everyone chose something different. On the last day, I finally wrote these words from Jesus: “Peace I give to you; my peace I leave with you.”

This icon sits at the center of a wall of icons in our living room, and it’s the initial focus of a sort of meandering meditation I do while drinking my first cup of coffee in the morning. Since starting to think about this sermon on Jesus’ question to the disciples, I’ve been conscious of how one of my answers would still be, “Jesus, you are the one who offers the gift of peace.” In these years of political chaos, lies, and cruelty; of Covid; Rick’s open-heart surgery; the divorce of one of our sons; war in Ukraine; climate disasters – I need that still moment of peace in the morning with Jesus.

But I can’t stay there. Evelyn Underhill warns us, “It won’t make you grow to get inside a comfortable religious system that suits you, and look over the edge like a cat in a basket…sitting on your devotional cushion purring.” I can’t keep sitting in that chair all day; I can’t hoard the peace I pray for. I have to get up and take that peace with me into the day, to be, as St. Francis prayed, an instrument of Christ’s peace to those I encounter, and to the wider world.

So I wonder what it would be like if, later in the service, instead of offering “The peace of Christ be always with you,” we instead offered our own answers. “The love of Christ be always with you.” “The shepherding Christ be always with you.” “The Apple Tree be always with you.” I’m not sure you’d want to wish a shard of glass in the gut to always be with someone, but we do occasionally use a prayer that asks that we be blessed with “discomfort at easy answers and half-truths….” So one might say, “The discomfort of Christ be always with you,” or, as that young inmate wrote, “The Storm that rocks my life be always with you.”

And whatever our answer might be today, remember, “God is bigger than that,” and Jesus is the Son of this living God with names beyond number, so perhaps Jesus may whisper a new name to you tomorrow, one he’s never been called before, and it will be true.