A Personal Question Deserves a Personal Answer
August 21, 2011 The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
It was a warm August night when there only two of us standing on our neighbor’s deck. The others had gone inside to escape the heat and eat the dessert waiting in the cool kitchen. Alone on the deck in the descending darkness of early evening my neighbor asked, “so, how did you find the Lord?” It was not a question I was expecting at a neighborhood dinner party, or any party for that matter. It made me uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. Honestly, my first thought was that he might have had too much to drink and was just teasing his neighbor, the Reverend, as he refers to me. (I always respond hardy, har har.) Then I looked at his face and knew he was serious, whether drunk or not. His question was about more than me. In the unclutteredness of that moment, alone on the deck, my neighbor was asking a personal question that may have been as much about him and it was about me. He was asking an honest question and not just having a little fun mocking a Christian. What could I say? A direct question deserved a direct answer, and in this case, a personal answer, not an general religious one.
I wonder if the encounter between Jesus and Peter was similar. Jesus asking Peter, “who do you say that I am?” is a personal question to which Jesus expected a personal answer; and not an answer that merely echoed what the general public was saying. He knew what others were saying about him. Jesus wanted to know where Peter stood in relation to him. But I wonder whether Jesus, like my neighbor, was asking the question for himself as much as for Peter. Was he looking for Peter to confirm in him what he knew to be true, but wanted Peter to know it, too? It’s a poignant moment. Peter was compelled to give a straight answer to Jesus question. So was I when my neighbor asked how I found the Lord. I could have easily dismissed him and suggest we head for the dessert table. He wasn’t interested in dessert. So I answered him.
I told him that it made more sense to describe how God found me, rather than me finding the Lord. After all, the Lord wasn’t lost so why should I talk about finding him, as if I were the hero of the story? I told my friend that the Lord wasn’t lost, but I sure was even though I was the coolest kid on the block. So I’d rather talk about the goodness of the Shepherd who never ceases looking for lost ones, including this one who had drifted away from the church at a tender age because the church seemed more concerned for its own survival than anything else; and, as best I could tell, was either clueless or not interested in addressing the issues that were rocking my world, including where is God, when everything else in falling apart.
Having abandoned a Church that seemed capable of a lot of talk and activities, but never a compelling word of God in the midst of war, racism, class division and basic social breakdown, I was left to search on my own along with thousands of others in my generation at that time. While the Presbyterian church of my youth was doing reasonably fine, carrying on its civic club activities that mirrored every other all-white do-good, social club ensuring the continuation of a stable, American Protestant Civil Religion for at least a few more years, thousands of people like me were happily adrift, protesting this war and that action, sampling this drug or another, singing of freedom without any spiritual mooring, and desperately searching for something called home for the heart.
I told my neighbor that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, finally found me when a couple of people from the Church that I had abandoned as hopeless, asked me if I wanted to enter into a life with Jesus, who forgives sins and gives to all who follow him abundant life. Rather than laugh at them or ridicule them as I expected to do when I opened the door, I heard in their simple invitation something true and honest. I wanted to laugh at them, but something else happened. I didn’t walk away. Instead I heard an invitation to come home. As I have learned over the years since that time, they were giving me an opportunity to enter a life long journey of discipleship in the Christian faith that begins with a personal commitment to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who searches relentlessly for the lost until are brought home.
It seems to me that the Christian life begins and ends with the personal knowledge that one is found by a gracious God. The consequence of the astonishing good news of being found is the desire to live his ways in your life. I realize that the fear of being mistaken for a fundamentalist (horror!) have made it awkward for many of us to put it this way, nevertheless there is an undeniable personal commitment that is at the heart of Christianity. When Jesus asked Peter, who do you say that I am?, he was asking about his allegiance to him not about his general religious knowledge. When you declare Jesus to be the incarnation of God, you are declaring your own place in the universe of spiritual beliefs and practices. Strangely enough, one can maintain membership in religious institutions and engage in religious activities, even use religious language, god talk, but have no personal allegiance to any God, including the one known in Jesus. That is how we end up with American Christendom: religion without discipleship or where nothing personal is at stake. When the chips are gone and the ship of state is sinking, it is only self that matters. That is a very small island to rest one’s life on.
Religion is easy, following Jesus is not.
That hot August night I told my neighbor when those church people came to my door to offer me an opportunity to follow Jesus, I said yes, even though I was not at all sure what I was doing, only that I had a sense that I was no longer alone and that I was somehow coming home to the community that I had abandoned so many years earlier. In order to be found, I had to admit that I was lost, caught up in a world could never satisfy no matter how comfortable it seemed to be. No one can be found who does not finally admit to being lost. I was and I did.
My slightly tipsy neighbor didn’t ask if that meant that everything is okay with me. But I told him anyway. I stumble more often than walk, I fail more often than follow, I’m more like Peter than Paul, and I believe, despite my doubt, that the One in whom I have put my trust is faithful and will not abandon me. Jesus is not any easier to follow, in fact, as I get older and more comfortable and the world continues to be wracked by war and poverty, it is more difficult to walk in Jesus’ way. Then and now, Jesus does not offer an easy way, so that I might be better adjusted to this ungodly world of war, greed, violence and deception. He calls me, as he called Peter, to let go of my own life so that I might enter into his life that counters this world, and in him find peace. Who do you say that I am is the question that invites me over and over again to cling to Christ who is my only hope.
So, friends, beloved of God, let me ask you a personal question. How is that God found you?