|On This Rock... (June 2014)|
A Sermon Preached in
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Royal Oak, MI
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 16A RCL)
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
Greetings from the Diocese of Michigan
in my new role as the Director of the Whitaker Institute.
The Whitaker Institute is the teaching
and Christian formation department of the Bishop’s office.
Our vision is to provide learning opportunities
beyond what individual parishes can
developing and forming disciples
who do God’s work in the world.
this includes three main programs:
First, Academy for Vocational Leadership –
a monthly seminary operating collaboratively with
Dio E Mich and Dio W Mich.
The Academy provides theological training
for people seeking ordination.
Second, Exploring Your Spiritual Journey –
a twice-monthly circle of people
listening with the ear of their heart
how God is calling them to serve in the world.
Third, Safeguarding courses –
regular courses designed to teach church ministers
about protecting the safety and dignity
of children and vulnerable adults.
Whitaker offers several other enrichment courses
that arise through commonly expressed needs –
such as the Epiphanies Conference –
a speaker series for church geeks
who love to wrestle with meaty theological topics
like a pilgrimage to provocative places
for people seeking to refuel their spiritual life,
such as the Holy Land tour offered
last November (and will again in 2019).
I would like to thank Pastor Beth, in absentia,
for inviting me here today to be with you
while she is away on vacation!
A few summers ago, I, too, joined a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
One day, we took a bus to a spot about 25 miles
north of the Sea of Galilee,
in the hills just west of Syria.
We pilgrims gathered at the trailhead,
shaded by a grove of trees.
We reflected on today’s gospel passage, “who do you say that I am?”
In the cool breeze near a babbling brook,
we pondered that question.
Who do we say that Jesus is –
Not with our mind, not with our Sunday creedal formulas.
We wondered aloud and shared who he is in our lives –
in our relationships, in our bank accounts, in our time energy …
We realized we don’t *really* understand who he is,
but we gave it a try.
And one by one we opened our hearts and got vulnerable.
Who do I say that Jesus is?
Here’s what he is for me, today:
Jesus is the embodied presence of God in our lives.
He is here to show us
how much God loves us
and all people.
Since God is so big, so enormous,
so unconditionally generous and gracious,
God in Jesus came to live like one of us,
to reveal how God feels about us
and to know the pain and suffering of humanity.
In this way Jesus shows us the heart of God,
the heart that is broken
when people march in circles
and say mean-spirited, ugly words about others.
The heart that suffers when natural disasters
wreak havoc on homes and the environment.
The heart that knows the tender, holy spot
in the depth of our souls where beauty rests.
The heart that loves us, wants the best for us
and is always eager to welcome us home
with grace, forgiveness and love.
Who do I say Jesus is?
The power of Jesus is the action of God –
healing in the face of disease,
compassion in the face of demons,
food in the belly and hearts of hungry people,
the power of Jesus is found in
The power – God’s power – LOVE
is more powerful than hate and fear and death.
Here, through Jesus, we know God’s love wins.
Well, that’s not perfect, but that’s a start, for me.
Which is all that I can claim, here, today.
But that day, a few years ago, at Caesarea Philippi,
we walked in the scorching-heat up the trail
and looked out from a terrace that was 1200 feet above
the fertile Jordan valley below.
We looked up at the sheer rock cliff,
high as El Capitan in Yosemite,
solid and sheer,
petrified & glazed from the bright sun,
the wind and rain-smoothed edges
flat face soft like sandstone yet shiny like polished concrete.
On this Petrified/Peter rock, Jesus said,
he will build the church.
At the base of the cliff,
a large cave offers gushing sounds from underground.
Long before Jesus’ time,
people called it the “Gates of Hades”,
because they believed the ancient Syrian god Baal
would enter and leave the underworld
through places like this, where water emerged.
Here was the watershed for the Jordan river
Flowing below ground towards Jerusalem.
The psalmist referenced this cave’s gurgle
in Psalm 42 “as a deer longs for water brooks,
so longs my soul for thee.”
We learned that ancient peoples scattered
at least fourteen temples
between where we stood and nearby Mount Hermon,
aka Baal Hermon from 1st Chronicles, chapter 5.
Here, too, is the birthplace of the Greek god Pan,
god of nature, fields, forests, mountains –
son of the god Hermes.
There, on the rock face, the three niches display
inscribed prayers to Pan and to the Nymphs.
Here, too, history records this spot
as the administrative center of Rome
during the time of King Agrippa.
Here, Herod the Great built a temple
for Caesar and his son, Philip,
used white marble for the city’s finishing touches,
and named the place Caesarea Philippi.
So – what a context!
Here is Jesus, standing as
a homeless, penniless Galilean carpenter
with 12 regular disciples
teaching and wondering,
who do the people say that I am?
Here is Jesus, standing in an area
· littered with statues & temples of the ancient Syrian gods
· beneath the niches dedicated to Hellenistic god Pan
· known as the most important river in Judaism comes to life
· where the white marble home of Caesar-worshiping Romans dominated the landscape
Here, Jesus seems to have
deliberately set himself
against the background
of the world’s powers
to demand his disciples confess who he is.
Here, in Caesarea Philippi.
Not just another city, but a strong symbol,
Like Washington DC, known for political power gods
Or like NY City, known for economic & consumer gods
Or like Las Vegas, known for … other gods…
well you know – what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Not just any old city.
For here was the perfect place for Jesus
to confront the powers of the world
who seemed to scream
death and destruction, hate and greed.
Here was the place Jesus blessed Peter
for recognizing the Divine power of Love
on which Jesus will build the church –
the new community through whom
God can bring about a kingdom
of peace and justice.
Here is the place where God is at work.
Yes, here, in the midst of
statues and white supremacy groups
that offend the gospel,
here in the shadow of governing powers
threatening the dignity and respect
of our transgendered sisters and brothers
here in the wake of destruction by Hurricane Harvey
here in the fear of North Korea’s confrontation with the US
For here in the midst of our context
is the perfect place for God in Jesus
to confront the powers of the world.
Here is the place where Jesus blesses us
And gives us the keys to the kingdom
to build a new community of disciples
through whom God can bring about a kingdom
of peace and justice.
Here, we confess who Jesus is: God’s love at work.
For Love is bigger. Love is stronger.
Love is brighter than any power or principality
that seems to darken our lives.
Here, in the form of the Open Hands Food Pantry and Garden.
Here, in the service of the New to You clothing closet.
Here, in the Youth “take a bag-share a bag” service project.
Here, in various community gatherings at
Other worship sites,
we proclaimed that LOVE IS BIGGER.
Here, in this community
we confess in word and deed,
that the Living God is at work in our lives,
here we claim God’s power and providence
is bigger than the context
in which the world places us.
Love – today – Love is here.
Here, in the midst of our Caesarea Philippi.
And on this rock of unwavering love,
God is building a new community,
in this gathering of ordinary disciples