On life lost and saved, and the big question's invitation

My sister was telling me about a job interview she had this week, during which she was asked the question, “What would people who know you say that they do not like about you?” 
When she told me this, as someone who knows her, naturally, a handful of things immediately came to mind. But the question so threw her in the moment she was wondering about what she had answered. And it made me wonder if I could answer it about myself, if I would dare to answer it about myself. 
What do people who know me not like about me? What do they like about me? Who would they say that I am? And is that who I truly am?
What summarizes a person?

Jesus asks a question and throws his friends for a loop.  He starts by inviting them to describe stories, report rumors, recap the buzz.  Who do people say that I am?  Fun game, ok!
Some say this, others that, you know.
But then he asks them what must feel like a frighteningly vulnerable thing- both to ask and to be asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Imagine asking that of your spouse, your brother, your close friend, your daughter.  Who would you say I am?
Not even, How would you describe me? What are my defining characteristics, my strengths and weaknesses? 
But, in your words, who am I?

Perhaps the deepest and most difficult question most of us spend a lifetime with, is, Who am I? And just when we think we have a grasp on it, we keep changing, slippery old us! and we have to keep wrestling with it anew.
Who am I, now that my partner has died?
Who am I, now that I have this diagnosis?
Who am I with this newfound freedom? 
This person to love?
This job that inspires me?
Who am I now that I am suddenly responsible for this tiny new being? 
Who am I when I’ve done something so horribly outside what I thought I was capable of?
When I can’t take back those words, when I can’t repair that breach?
Who am I when who I thought I was has changed?
Who am I? is a scary question, and not one we often invite others to contemplate with us.

So Jesus opens up his chest and asks them to peer inside?
Who am I, would you say?

And right away, Peter, who has been waiting for this chance, who has been mulling this question in those moments of deep thought before sleep creeps up to deliver you, who has given up a perfectly stable career to follow this guy around because the question has so intrigued and compelled him and now he’s finally ready to issue his conclusion, and, frankly, is thrilled at being asked, answers, “Why Jesus?! You are the Messiah!”
And oh, it feels great to say it! To say it outloud because it summarizes everything Peter has longed for and all that he hasn’t put words to until now.  God is saving us! Before my eyes every day I see the promise made real – in his words, in his healing, this is it! He is it! We are being delivered from all that is broken, the fulfillment is here and I am ready to declare it!
So face beaming in confidence and trust, he delivers his pronouncement. Most likely he is expecting a hug. Or some kind of praise for his astute observations.  Affirmation, at least. Yes, Peter, you hit the nail on the head, YOU. *nuggy*

But not this. Not this diatribe about suffering, humiliation and death.  Not this ideological whiplash.
What you say is true. I am the Messiah. But I do not think it means what you think it means.  Messiah means I’ll suffer. It means I’ll die. It means that as hard as all this is, it’s going to be doubly hard on me and on those who follow me.

And Peter is rattled. Jesus, what are you saying? I’ve seen what you are; you are here to save us all!  Stop this crazy talk!  You’re stepping way outside the definition of you that I’m comfortable with.
And then Jesus sharply rebukes him (which had to sting), and he then calls the crowd around him and tells everyone what Messiah really means.

Who am I?
Not your hero, after all. Not the fulfillment of all your wishes and dreams, who ends your distress and solves all problems and make everything better. I am not the one who saves you out of this.  I am the one who joins you in this.

I was at a wedding last weekend, and if anything involves asking who people are and what it’s all about, it’s weddings.

Who’s that?
Groom’s mom. 
Friend of the bride’s dad. 
She comes from money. 
He’s a professional hockey player.
She’s in the middle of an ugly divorce. 
He drinks a little too much. 
She’s really nice. 
He owns a small farm and dabbles in investments on the side.  And in one or two words, a line or so, we summarize and totalize each person who drifts past and finds their seat.

Even the couple standing there looking at each other, ready to give each other their whole lives – how completely do they really know one another?  How completely do we really know ourselves?

I would love to be at a wedding sometime and hear a preacher tell it like it really is.  Eyes twinkling, opening jokes aside, he’d lean in and catch their gaze and hold it.  Then he’d say, perhaps a bit sternly, You two love each other; that’s good. You’re really going to need that. Because this thing you’re about to do is a lot harder than it looks. And sometimes you are going to want out.

He’d ignore the uncomfortable shifting of the people in the pews, and plow onward, speaking only to the couple on the brink of this life commitment.

And there are things about yourself you are going to wish you could change, and this other person is going to see all of that over the years.  And you are going to watch them change in ways that you like and in ways you don’t like so much, and also they’ll stay the same in ways you might secretly be hoping will change.  The point is, it’s messy. 
And it isn’t going to be easy loving, choosing to love, every day, being who you are, accepting who they are.  You will be surprised again and again, and drawn into deeper mystery, fresh discomfort, and new discoveries.

And guess what? Your life doesn’t really belong to you anymore.  You’re losing it. From now on, you are his; she is yours. Car crashes, cancer, heartbreak and breakdowns – when they come, you will carry hers far heavier than your own, and when he suffers great loss, it will carve you out inside.

And now we would all be silent, not a cough or wiggle among us, watching the couple watching the pastor, taking it all in, weighing his words.

And if you have kids, when they come you’ll lose your life all over again – all the things you thought made you you, all the freedoms you enjoy and the capacity to worry just about your own self and each other- that disappears – your life belongs to them now. You will worry about them and shape your days and your nights around them, and you’ll sacrifice for them and see them and love them for who they are in ways that will break your heart over and over again.

But please hear this: in losing your life, you will gain it. Because to belong to another is the most precious thing there is. You are theirs.  They are yours. In all this vast world, the mystery of this other is a gift to belong to, and you give to them belonging as well. This is the power of love – it takes away your life and gives it back in breathless beauty and shocking suffering that is shared and given and known.  And this, my dears, this is what it means to be truly alive.

And maybe for a moment, before the evening disintegrates into nostalgia and schmaltz, we will all feel a little awed at what it is to be blessed human beings, gifts to each other, sitting here together in all our messy and mysterious glory and need.

Jesus looks at his beloved disciples, and at the crowds of people gathered around and he wants them to know, this Messiah gig is not all it’s cracked up to be.  He doesn’t get to swing into this life and rescue people out of it without touching down.  Every single place of grief and separation boring into our gut he shares with us, every single breakdown of trust, loss and tragedy wrought between us, every person who goes to bed hungry, angry or painfully alone, he is there, holding it with us, joining us in it.  His life is already entirely lost for our sake.

Yes, I’m the Messiah.  That means I belong to the world, to each and every one of you, and in me the whole world has its belonging.  And so to follow me means opening up your heart as well, to all the world, and to every beloved, befuddled mystery of a person made in the image of God.  

It means feeling the suffering they feel, taking on each other’s burdens, standing with and for one another when the going is hard, accepting being misunderstood, getting angry but loving anyway. Sticking it out as a person who belongs to many others and to whom many others belong.

This is not an easy life, being the Messiah.  And neither is it easy following the Messiah.  This is a real life you’re signing up for, Jesus wants them to know.  It’s not romantic escapism, or a religious formality, it’s agreeing to the raw and often painful, a life lived wide awake and open. 

Remember when we began the summer of faith? And we listened to the question of faith that confronts us when the person of Jesus confronts us- however he comes – the question when the disciples stand with him in the aftermath of a storm calmed – Who then is this?
Who then is this - who calls us to follow him into the heart of suffering, the very heart of love?
Who then is this – who confounds our definitions and draws us ever nearer?
Who then is this - who pulls us away from answers and conclusions, and invites us instead into mystery, and belonging, and the power of love to take away life and give it fully all at once?

And we, with our own who am I?s - our relentless seeking is lifted to the One to whom we belong, the One in whom our selves are found and never lost, and we are invited to venture that trembling and vulnerable inquiry – What about you, God? Who do you say that I am? 
Because I want to be that. How you see me.
If it is generous and brave and forgiving,
if it is daring to love and open to life and risking for others, I want to be that

And I want to live the life of faith, where Jesus brushes aside what everyone else says about who he is and asks me himself, Who do you say that I am?

And I don’t want to be afraid when the answer surprises me, or makes me uncomfortable, when it isn’t as clean and pristine, or as strong and invincible as I had hoped. I want to be drawn in to try to answer it again and again each time I see God’s love and grace, and not to foreclose and accept how others define God for me, or how I think things are supposed to be.  I want to step into the vulnerable place to be asked by God, invited by God, Are you willing to follow where I go?

What summarizes a person?  
Who would you say that I am?
In a thousand years of living you couldn’t completely answer this question about even your own self, let alone sum up the deep mystery that is another human being.  You could dance around the margins, and plumb the depths here and there, but even in a lifetime of loving someone faithfully, the vastness of their being will remain something of a dazzling mystery.  But the invitation to discover others, to let others begin to know you – this is sacred indeed. And that God would invite us into this conversation, would welcome us into this endeavor? Well, that is something else altogether.
That is soul ripping open to the world’s pain and beauty in each precious fellow child of the Divine.  That is love taking hold, and belonging setting in. That is watching your life become both utterly lost and joyously saved.
Oh, may we bravely entertain such an invitation!  
And may we courageously follow wherever the question leads!

Another version of this sermon on this text, adapted and updated, was preached 2/21/16, and can be found here.

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