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Proper 21, Year A

What Is It That You Do?

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

In his book “It Was on Fire When I Sat Down on It, Robert Fulgham talks about our obsession with role. He remarks about the inevitable question that strangers sitting next to you on a plane ask. “What is it that you do?” they will say to you. What they really want to know, of course, is how you earn your living. That is why so often when he asks them in return what they do, they will respond by handing him their business card. When they do so, he asks again, “But what do you do?” They simply point to the card as if that is explanation enough.

Since he is many things, amongst them an author, a Unitarian minister, a lecturer, he was not in the habit of carrying a business card. When asked, he would try to explain what it was he did, but found it easier to either avoid the question or make something up. That got him into a number of tricky circumstances, so he finally thought of a way out of it all. He now carries a business card. On it is one word, “Fulgham”. He says that when he gives it away it leads to fine conversations about what it means to be a son, or a dancer, or a teacher, or a runner, or whatever.

He sums up what he has learned. “I and you – we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living breathing miracles – free human beings, children of God and the everlasting universe. That’s what we do.”[i] What he has discovered is that it is not really about what we do but about who we are. It is about becoming what God has called us to be.

That for me is strongly the theme of our readings today. They all have in common that they are about becoming. They are about how God finds us and helps us to become all that we are meant to be.

It is there in that age old story of Moses, the babe in the bulrushes. You know the story well; the baby placed lovingly in a papyrus basket and put amongst the reeds by the bank of the river so that he will be saved. It takes place at a time of unrest in the history of the Hebrew people. There has been a change of government in Egypt. The Hebrew people who took refuge there during a time of famine suddenly find themselves facing slavery, even genocide as Pharaoh commands that young boys be killed. It is the Hebrew women who take charge of the situation. The midwives disobey the order to kill the children. By being themselves, by acting with integrity and by meeting the challenges with wisdom and compassion, they save the lives of countless babies. In an unexpected turn of events, they save Moses, the very child who will in turn save the Hebrew people. God’s eye is on the situation. None of the women could have known the impact of what they were doing. They simply did what was right without fearing the consequences. God took care of the rest.

Then there is the account of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Church in Rome. Paul reminds them that everyone is different. He reminds them that it is a good thing that everyone is different, that we all have different gifts and talents. He wants them to cheerfully accept the particular task or role for which they are best suited. He knows that the congregation will be at its healthiest if all are serving God in the right capacity. He asks them to realize that they are called to give themselves into a living body with other committed Christians. They are to become everything that God wants them to be.

Then there is the story of Peter coming into his own. In recognizing who Jesus is Peter becomes everything that God intends him to be. Jesus is at a crucial point in his ministry. He withdraws with his disciples, not to his home in Galilee, but rather to the district around Caesarea Philippi. It is probably one of the most secular places that Jesus ever visited. Not only is it an army headquarters. It is also a centre for the worship of the god, Pan. Here beneath the slopes of Mount Hermon, in this lovely area watered by cold, rushing streams that converge to form the Jordan River, Jesus asks the disciples a key question about their faith. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They have many answers for Jesus – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. And so Jesus asks again, “Who do you say that I am?” This is not some rhetorical question. He does not want them to talk about what he has accomplished. It is a real question. He wants a real answer, an answer from the heart. The disciples dodge until Simon finally says to him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is a response that comes, not from his great theological background. He does not have one. It comes not from anything that he has been taught. It comes from deep inside him. It comes with conviction.

This is Peter after all. At least as the story continues, it will be. Peter, more than anyone knows the humanity of Jesus. He has travelled with him. He has seen him angry, and tired and frustrated. But he has also seen him work great miracles. He has seen him deal with compassion with the needy people who followed him everywhere. He has seen him use a few meager resources to feed hungry people. He has seen him still stormy weather. He knows that Jesus is different. He is the Christ. When Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, he is recognizing all of that. He is making him the master of his life.

And so Jesus responds to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter not only discovers the real identity of Jesus; he discovers his own identity too. Simon the fisherman discovers that he has something in him that makes him Peter, the rock, the foundation on which the Christian Church is built.

Our faith stories, yours and mine are about ‘becoming’. That sense of ‘becoming’ is the foundation of our faith. Jesus says to each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a very contemporary question, one that we need to ask ourselves in the context of our own lives. We have so many ways of viewing Jesus. Can you imagine Jesus’ business card! Teacher, guru, moral ethicist, leader, religious icon, revolutionary, freedom fighter, political liberator! There is no one answer. All of those views reflect human history. They reflect human experience. There is some truth to each one.

And the amazing thing is that knowing Jesus helps us to understand more fully who we are. Our faith helps us to be more fully who we are meant to be. That was one of the most important things that I learned while I was studying theology. I thought I was studying to learn how to be a priest. What I discovered was that God was calling me to be more authentically myself. God has called me to be the best ‘Ann’ that I can be. God has called you to be the best ‘Diane’ or ‘Jim’ or ‘Mary” that you can be.

And the most important thing about knowing ourselves is that sense of becoming is also the foundation of a resilient Christian community. There is something in this place that makes it the Church of St. John the Baptist, Dixie. Right now you may be thinking that what makes it St. John the Baptist has left with Rob. He has been the well loved priest in this parish for a long time. You may even feel a sense of abandonment. Hopefully you are feeling excited about what the future might hold, for you are beginning a new chapter in your history. The Parish Selection Committee has worked hard to capture what this parish is all about. You have had an opportunity to give input about the direction you need to take. This is a wonderful opportunity to reaffirm God’s call to you as the people of God.

You can look back on the long and varied ministry in this place. As with any parish you can look back nostalgically on a time when the Sunday School was filled to overflowing. You can remember wonderful liturgies and celebrations. You can remember people who brought with them their unique gifts and talents. You can also look back on mistakes that were made, on difficult times that you would rather forget. And then you can look forward to a new beginning. Peter is the rock on whom the Church of God is built. You are the rock, the foundation on which this parish is built.

So remember that you are the Church. The Church is not this building, no matter how beautiful it is. It is not the clergy who have served here, no matter how amazing they have been. So be the Church. Use this time of transition to discover new and wonderful things about what you are becoming as a parish. You can be, in fact you must be, everything you are meant to be. Who knows what extraordinary role this parish will play as you move into the future? God be with you as you embark on this new part of the journey. Amen.

[i] “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It”, p. 68 Robert Fulgham 1989

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