All of the talk about walls. Impenetrable boundaries. Places we cannot cross. Every time I hear the “build that wall,” I get an uneasy feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. Nowhere in today’s readings is the word “wall” mentioned. But there are questions. Lots and lots of questions. And really BIG questions.
And… we are asking a lot of BIG QUESTIONS of our confirmation youth. This week I spent time preparing for the last three confirmation gatherings and our upcoming confirmation celebration on October 21. Earlier this year I sent out an “OMG!” packet, an “Oh My God!” faith packet of questions for the teens and their mentors to sit down and go over together. We ask them to respond to questions such as:
- In Luke 9:23, Jesus invites disciples to follow him. What do you think it means to “follow Jesus” in modern times?
- And “If a friend asked you, ‘What difference does going to your church make in your life?’ I’d say…”
We then invite the youth to think about the set of promises that they will be responding to as they are confirmed. One such commitment is to answer this phrase: “Saying ‘yes’ to the invitation to follow Jesus is a commitment to…”
And… in the life of the church… we are asking REALLY BIG questions too. Rebecca Malke, our Director of Faith Development, recently shared an article with the Church Council and Membership Committee entitled, “10 Reasons Americans Go to Church—and 9 Reasons They Don’t.” Think about it. Why DO YOU go to church? If there have been times in your life when you didn’t go to church (and there were huge chunks of my life when I did not go to church), why didn’t you go to church? What is it about church… about this Jesus… about these stories… about this ministry… that speaks to you (or, conversely, doesn’t speak to you?).
And then… there are the walls. Here. At Memorial UCC. This year’s Sunday School curriculum includes an opportunity for the youth to ask questions. Of their Sunday School teachers, or their parents/guardians, grandparents, Rebecca, me, and… of course… you! The walls to which I was drawn this week, are in our Sunday School rooms. Last week was the first week of the new Sunday School year. In each of the 3 Sunday School rooms there is a place for the children to post their questions. And that place… is on a wall. We have had ONE day of Sunday School, and the questions the children have asked… are pretty amazing:
- If God gave us rainbows as a promise, why have we had so much flooding lately?
- What does the Lord’s Prayer mean?
- How did God get created?
- What is the meaning of life?
- I want to learn how evil came about.
- What does the future look like?
And my personal favorite: Why is church so weird?
In the midst of all of these questions, Jesus comes to us today and says, “Who do you say that I am?”
Who do YOU say that Jesus is? What image? Rabbi? Healer? Miracle worker? Prophet? Companion? Teacher? Challenger? Rebel? Some who were with Jesus thought he was John the Baptist. Others said Elijah. Still others though one of the prophets. And Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah. Yet even Peter didn’t understand what that meant. Jesus slams Peter’s idea of who Jesus was as not wide enough. Not encompassing enough. Not God… enough.
These are ALL BIG QUESTIONS. How will we answer them? Karoline Lewis, a New Testament scholar tweeted this week that Jesus’ “’Who do you say that I am?’ is at the same time, ‘who will you say that you are?’ Answering the question of Jesus’ identity is also having to give voice to your own.”
Who do you say that Jesus is?
And who will you say that you are?
A friend of mine describes Jesus as being a witness. Showing up and witnessing how we respond to his presence in the face of the person with a heroin addiction; the person who is looking for work after having been incarcerated; the person who has lost their life’s partner, and is lonely; the person undergoing cancer treatments; the person who is experiencing memory loss…
Now that I have been here, at Memorial UCC for almost a year, I took some time this week to look back on my first year as a pastor. I pulled our my ordination paper to see how I described who Jesus is for me—and to see whether or not my understanding of who I say that I am as a follower of Christ has changed. In part I wrote that for me, “In our place and time, Jesus continues to challenge us to step into the unexpected, cross boundaries, and envision a new world where love overcomes fear and life overcomes death. I believe that, as followers of Jesus, the narratives of our biblical ancestors point to norms of us being rooted at the edges. Our human tendency is to stay in our comfort zones. Yet as followers of Jesus, we are continually called into new places, beyond known edges and boundaries. There, in the thin space between despair and hope, the world can be transformed.”
At the edge. At those boundaries that create walls. Form barriers. Divisions that must be overcome. Broken down. Stepped over. Questions asked as the hurricane winds of bad theology swirl about and flood our souls. We live in a time when televangelists “(send) out an anti-storm incantation(s) via” their broadcasting networks as hurricane Florence approaches land, and pastors cut up their Nike wear during sermons to cheers and standing ovations Here Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”
THIS IS THE BIG QUESTION. The question that transforms. The question that breaks down our human understanding of who God is. The question that challenges us to describe who Jesus is—for us. Lewis rightly suggests that the question “’Who do you say that I am?’ is a much harder question than we think it is, and it’s already hard enough…” for “‘Who do you say that I am?’ is also a question we should ask of others, of ourselves. Who, indeed, will people say we are? Jesus knows it’s one of the hardest questions to ask—which is why he asks it in the first place, and why he has to ask it first.”
Big questions that breakdown this idea that we already “get” who God is. Big questions that lead us into caring conversations with one another. With our confirmands. The Sundays School youth. Each and everyone one of us as we live, and grow, and face death, and question our faith. Embrace our faith. Encounter the Spirit. Who will people say we are?
I invite you to walk through each of the three Sunday School rooms today. Look at the questions the youth have posted. Find a youth, and ask them which question is theirs. Ask each other these questions. Ask Rebecca. Ask me. Ask yourself. And ponder the question “Who, indeed, do people – will people—say we are?” as Memorial UCC?
For Jesus asks us today, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Reflection on Isaiah 50:4-9a and Mark 8:27-38 offered on September 16, 2018
 Burke, Daniel. “10 Reasons Americans Go to Church — and 9 Reasons They Don’t.” CNN. August 10, 2018. Accessed September 15, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/09/us/pew-church-10-reasons/index.html.
 Lewis, Karoline. Twitter. September 12, 18.
 Gorton, Kristin. Ordination Paper. 2017. McFarland, WI.
 Mazza, Ed. “Televangelist Pat Robertson Casts ‘Shield Of Protection’ Ahead Of Hurricane Florence.” The Huffington Post. September 11, 2018. Accessed September 15, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pat-robertson-hurricane-florence_us_5b972c04e4b0cf7b0042d9c7.
 Garrand, Danielle. “Alabama Pastor Cuts up Nike Gear during Sermon, as Congregation Cheers, Laughs.” CBS News. September 12, 2018. Accessed September 15, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/alabama-pastor-cuts-up-nike-gear-during-sermon-as-congregation-cheers-laughs/.
 Lewis, Karoline. Twitter. September 13, 18.
 Lewis, Karoline. Twitter. September 14, 18.