August 27, 2017: "Jesus Is ________"
“Jesus Is ________.”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Isaiah 51:1-6 & Matthew 16:13-20
Instead of tell you today who Jesus is according to church tradition and theology, I’m going to tell you who Jesus is to me. But in order to understand who Jesus is to me, you need to know how we met.
I was baptized into the Christian family about a month after I was born, and I would like to tell you that it was at that moment that I met Jesus for the first time. It’s true—I did meet Jesus in those holy waters, but it was not until 20 years later that I really met Jesus for the first time.
It was the summer of 2006. At the time I was working in a Presbyterian church as an organist and the pastor of the church asked if I would help chaperone the high school youth at camp for a week. I was working in a church but, honestly, it was entirely a Sunday thing—I did my duties on Sunday, but didn’t really think about it or live it the other days of the week. The pastor was persistent even though I kept making up excuses as to why I couldn’t go. Finally I gave in. After all, I was coming to the end of my undergraduate studies and if anything, it would be a week away from school and work and everything else.
When we got to Camp Living Waters in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, the very first thing that happened was a bright and terrible signal that this wasn’t going to be a vacation. You see, as soon as we stepped foot into camp all campers and chaperones had to turn in their cell phones, computers, electronics of any kind, and any type of magazine or newspaper in our possession. As you might guess, I had planned ahead and brought several of each of these things. Camp Living Waters is built on the philosophy that relationships are of utmost importance—anything that might distract from building relationships is prohibited. It was shocking at first, but eventually I did settled in without being glued to a device. In fact, after a day or two it was nice that I wasn’t attached to my cell phone or computer.
As a chaperone I was assigned to a group of high school guys and I had very specific duties. Each day I had to be sure they were awake on time, dressed, and ready for breakfast. I then had to accompany them to their daily workshops and to the river and make sure they were resting during quiet time. I had to be sure they were ready to pray before dinner on their assigned evening, and I watched as they planned and led worship one evening. After worship each evening I walked with them from the pavilion to their cabin, which was on the opposite end of the camp. Each night something seemed to be bugging one of them: relationship issues, questions about God, bullying, uncertainty about the school year that was coming. I was only slightly older than they were, but they still asked for my advice and I gave it freely. My final duty each night was to be sure they were tucked into their cabin and I didn’t lose a single one all week!
On the final night of the week, I surprisingly found myself not looking forward to going home. The next morning we would be packing up and hitting the road, reattached to whatever devices we had come with. In some ways I was dreading it. I didn’t want to go back to things as they were. Don’t get me wrong…there was nothing stressful or bad about my life. It is just that I had experienced something different in that week that I had not experienced before. Communal meals opened with prayer and filled with laughter and compassionate conversation; discussion groups about the Bible and life and faith and all the junk of human existence; worship and singing and prayer; genuine and tangible love. On that final night I knew that I was a different person than I was when the week started. Inside I felt this slow burn, an urging, a desire, not only to stay in that place for a while longer but to stay in that feeling, that emotion, that atmosphere for even longer.
We came home from camp and I went back to life as usual; I put my nose to the grindstone to graduate college on time and I kept up my Sunday morning work at the church. But that feeling never went away; that urging, that desire never went away. And it would only become more intense and complex when I found myself in the company of people who needed someone to listen, someone to care, someone to love them no matter what shape they were in. With the help of some wise counselors and friends, I came to understand that I was meeting Jesus in all of these people: I was meeting Jesus in the young man who was bullied in school because his clothes were different; I was meeting Jesus in the 30-year-old who was following her dreams but having a hard time making ends meet; I was meeting Jesus in the older man who had recently lost his wife and was utterly lost without her. But it wasn't just folks who were hurting or suffering either. When one of the kids at the church told me he wanted to learn how to play music like me, I was, for first time in my life, speechless. When I was asked to pray at graduation parties, or come see new babies in the hospital, or share in someone’s anniversary celebration, I knew I was standing on Holy Ground. And it all started on those summer nights in 2006 walking some high schoolers back to their cabins.
You see, I didn’t have a moment like Moses where a bush spontaneously lit on fire; I didn’t have a moment like Samuel, who heard God’s voice in the temple; I certainly did not have a moment like Paul, struck blind until I was ready to follow the Lord. I met Jesus in the hearts and minds and faces and stories of people who were already in my life, when and if I was willing to look and listen. So as I reflect on who Jesus is to me, this is what I know: Jesus is an invitation to stop focussing so much on ‘me’ so that I can focus on ‘us.’ I wasn’t a godless person before I met Jesus all those years ago; I wasn’t the greatest of sinners; I was not in need or a total reformation or transformation. But I had little to no concern about the people around me, or the impact I had on them with my words, my actions, and my behaviors. I was all about ‘me.’ If it wasn’t good for me, I didn’t do it, even if it was good for someone else. And the opposite is true: I did plenty of things that were good for me, but hurtful or detrimental to others. To me, Jesus is a turning from self to others, from inward to outward.
When I live this way, when I follow Jesus and spend as much time as I can on the people and things around me, I am truly free. Jesus is freedom. In him, I am free from imaging that everything is under my control and I am free from having to fight for power. In him, I am free from having to take and get and obtain as much as I can for myself because the more my neighbor has, the better their life is, the more they know they are loved and valued, the more I have. In him, I am free from self-doubt and fear and resentment because the more I do for others, the more I participate in God’s utter transformation of the world, the more aware I become of my blessings, my value, my place in God’s kingdom. In him, I am free from the need to discriminate, to dominate, to imagine that I am any better or any more worthy than someone else, because the more time I spend with other people, the more clearer it becomes that we all possess the sacred image of God and stand, in God’s eyes, on the same level plain. In him, I am free because I believe one day I’m going to have to answer to God for my life, and I believe God will be pleased when I say that I spent more time and energy and resources and love and mercy on and for and with others than I did on and with and for myself.
And, yet—there is always an ‘and,yet’—this is how I live only about 40% of the time. The other 60% of the time I’m so wrapped up in myself that I can’t see more than five feet in front of me. 60% of the time I’m so concerned with what others think of me that I give up my values and fall in line with whatever is popular. 60% of the time I’m so concerned with maintaining the image of a good pastor, a good husband, a good father that I don’t actually do any of the things that make one good at being a pastor, a husband, a father. 60% of the time I’m so worried about having the right answer or saying the right thing that I forget to listen to the person standing right in front of me. 60% of the time I’m so angry at this thing, or frustrated with that thing, or feeling self-righteous and indignant that God could be burning in a bush in front of me, or calling my name in the temple, and I wouldn’t see it or hear it. 60% of the time I am a lost sinner, utterly clueless about who God is or what God is calling me to do.
Which is why, to me, Jesus is also forgiveness: forgiveness for my selfishness, forgiveness for my need to look just right, forgiveness for my failures, forgiveness for the things I have done that have hurt other people. And that is also a matter of turning from being so inwardly focussed to turning outward to him, to the one who died and rose again to set me, and you, free. When I look out at him, to his wounded hands and feet and compassionate eyes, I see that my value and worth, my salvation and my redemption, has nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. Jesus is my Lord and Savior, he is my Messiah, he is the Son of the Living God.
So who do you say Jesus is? Today I call you today to consider who Jesus is to you. I call you to confess what you believe about him not for his sake or mine, but for your own so that you can take part in his amazing life and love. I call you to confess what you believe about Jesus, because confession very easily leads into action, and if the world needs anything right now it is people who confess and then live like Jesus. I call you to confess what you believe about Jesus and consider how you might tell others about him—not because they need to be saved, but because they need to be loved and cared for and valued. So who do you say Jesus is?
Let us pray…
Jesus Christ, Messiah, Son of the Living God:
Help us today to confess your name,
and in confessing your name, help us to see who you are
and what you are calling us to be and do.
Then, by your Holy Spirit, give us courage to listen
and then to act, embodying your peace and grace
and abundant love to a world in such desperate need. Amen.