By Associate Pastor, Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Isaiah 51: 1-6 and Matthew 16: 13-20
Some of you are aware that I’ve been in the middle of a notable life transition recently. My husband Brent and I helped our oldest son move into college last weekend. So it’s really his big life transition, but of course it feels like a big new step for us as parents, too. I must say that the enormousness of it is mitigated some by the fast that he’s attending Purdue, which is literally only about four miles or so from our house. So it’s not like he’s moved far away. But he’s aware, and we are aware, that this is a new chapter in his life. He’s largely on his own, with his own schedule to maintain, with time to pass in the way that he chooses. The rhythm of his life is going to be different. He’s going to lay his head down in a different place, make a whole new circle of friends, and spent a lot more time studying than he’s ever had to do in his life. (I’ve warned him!)
Moving away from home is a huge step. I know many of you remember this from experiences earlier in your life.
I’ve been hoping and praying that he’s ready. I know it’s going to be hard; it’s going to be a difficult adjustment, but I want him to be ready. And a big part of that readiness is having a strong foundation, having a solid rock underneath him. I want him to know who his is, and whose he is. So that when life is hard, and when disappointments come, because they will, that he will stay centered and whole. I hope the journey of faith that he’s walked this far, and all the people who have cared for him and mentored him – his teachers and church leaders and coaches and friends, and the life experiences (the blue ribbons and the concussions, the friendships and the heartbreaks) that have helped him grow – I hope all these things will help him find his way, that these things will ground him. But I know that he needs more than his social experiences and even his family’s nurturing to sustain him.
Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about how important our foundation is. About how essential it is to have a strong, impermeable sense of purpose, and security, and goodness. What is my son going to lean on? What is he going to trust in to remind him of who he is? And while these questions would have been hanging over me as a parent anyway, the ways that COVID is making life harder have me even more concerned. Moving to college even in a good year can feel lonely. My son is going to be more isolated than I would have chosen. Even this week, more of his classes have moved online. He’s not going to have the supportive experiences he otherwise would have had to make this transition easier. Let’s just say my concerns about his wellbeing are heightened due to the current circumstances. What will my son be able to lean on?
Both of our scripture texts today emphasize the rock of our salvation – which is another way to say the source of our livelihood, the source of our hope. In Isaiah, the prophet tells the people to “Listen!” Listen for the voice of God, and look back to the rock that you were formed from. Where did you come from? One way to do this is to look back to your ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. We’re asked to remember how much God loved them, to remember that God showed his favor on them in powerful and miraculous ways. Abraham and Sarah, who finally, very late in life, were blessed with the child that they had so longed for. We’re to remember that God chose them, in their old age and barrenness, to be the father and mother of a beloved nation of people. God’s chosen people. And the prophet is trying to get us to see that this story is our story. This is the rock that we are shaped from. God has loved us into being, he has chosen us, he promises to bless us and comfort us. It’s a promise that we see carried out in the early days of God’s people as well as in the Gospel stories about Jesus. It’s a promise carried out across space and time, a promise that holds for us today.
Listen to me, God says. Look at the rock you come from. Look at who has given you life, and hope, and second chances.
Henri Nouwen, the priest and theologian who wrote and spoke so beautifully about God’s love and our spiritual lives, has a book called Who Am I? that I want to explore in some detail as we look deeper into this notion of God as our source and our rock. Just about everything that I’m going to share next comes from Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book, so I have to credit him and the work of the Spirit if you hear something in the words that follow that inspires you.
Nouwen claims that many of us spend a lot of our lives living away from home, living away from where we’re supposed to be. Some of us spend a lot of our lives in circumstances that feel strange and dark. And as I think about my own son moving away from home literally, as he settles into this new space of life, I want him to be able to land comfortably not just in a new geographical space but in a firm spiritual place. I want him to feel solid and secure in his life.
Nouwen says that what pulls us away from being our true, solid selves is how we answer the question “Who am I?” We are all constantly answering this question in our lives. One way all of us are taught to answer this question is that “I am what I have.” Meaning that I am the parents and family that brought me into the world, I am the education that I did or didn’t receive, I am the nationality that shapes my civic identity, I am the body that I inhabit – in sickness or in health – I am the professional position that I hold, I am the friends and social circle that belong to: These are the things that make me who I am. These are the things that shape me in my relations with other people. And if I lose any of this – if any of this falls away from me, if I lose my job, if I lose my family, if I lose my friendships, if I lose my physical well-being – I feel, not just off-kilter, but I feel that I lose part of who I am.
Another way that we define who we are is by what others say about us. What other people think about us, and what they tell others about us, is very important to us. And we might not realize this is the case until someone says something critical, or someone dismisses us, especially in front of other people. When this happens to us, we feel it powerfully. And it might be just one person. All the others are saying good things, but it takes just one person to speak negatively about us and it can turn us into an emotional wreck. We become hurt and angry and upset. It feels awfully good when people say kind or complimentary things, but when they speak negatively it can pull us down into very dark places.
So these two ways of understanding who we are, of our value –I am what I have, and I am what others think about me – they exert a powerful force over most of us. Nouwen says this is true for him, and I readily acknowledge that it is true for me, too. Nouwen explains that what happens to us is that we live our lives in waves of ups and downs, depending on where we are at any given time with respect to what we have, and what others think of us. One day we are riding high, feeling pretty good, but it doesn’t take much for us to stumble, or even plummet and lose ourselves. A lot of our energy, both our own internal energy and the energy we spend we other people, is about keeping us in that good place, keeping us above the line. We spend a lot of energy holding on, or helping others hold on. A lot of our life, Nouwen says, is spent coping and saving.
What are you dependent on? When we depend on being told by the world around us who we are and what we are worth, we are pretty vulnerable, aren’t we? But it sure is easy to fall into that way of thinking.
Nouwen says that when this happens, it is what scripture calls “belonging to the world.” He says this is living in darkness, and it’s no way to live. We end up living anxious lives. We aren’t free when we live like that. The world, and those who are invested in what the world values have a grip over us, and they like it when we stay there because then they have control and power over us. And it makes them feel good, temporarily. You see the push and pull in all of this, I hope.
But as Nouwen points out, all of this is a big lie. God, throughout scripture, and Jesus in his life and revelation, shows and tells us over and over again – you are not those things. Jesus says I came to show you who you are: You are a child of God. You are mine, God says. I know you, I have shaped you from the depths of the earth. You belong to me. I love you. I belong to you. I see you. I embrace you. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus is with the disciples, and he asks them, who do you say that I am? Who am I to you? And the disciples, well, even after all their time with Jesus, they aren’t sure. They say, well, everyone says you are a prophet. You’re like the others God has sent to teach us and warn us. It’s only the disciple Simon who says, “You are the Messiah, the son of God.” Meaning, you are our redeemer, the one who saves us. Simon recognized that Jesus was showing us how much God loves us, in that way Jesus healed the broken, in the way he grieved with the brokenhearted, in the way he was angry in the face of injustice, in the way he fed those who were hungry. And Jesus says, yes, Simon, you are correct. And you know this not from your own wisdom but because God has revealed that truth to you. You see, Simon was able to hear the voice inside himself that revealed this truth. And because of his listening and believing, Jesus tells Simon, your name is now Peter, which means “rock,” and on this rock I will build my church. Everything depends on this listening and believing, this faith in the loving and saving work of God.
Nouwen says that this is the voice we have to hear and keep listening to. He says that the spiritual life is one in which you grow more and more in your ability to hear and discern this voice. It’s the voice that says I love you not because of what you have, not because of what people think of you, but because I love you.
And Nouwen says that if you can hear that, you can discover what it means to live in this world, and to love in this world. You have to know this love in your heart first, and only then can you recognize it in others, and see and love others as children of God. God’s love is not an exclusive club, where some are chosen and others are looked over. That’s the world’s paradigm; it’s not God’s way. When God’s love takes root in your being, God in you can discern God in the other. It’s the only way we can build loving homes, loving communities.
God’s way is not, I will love you if . . . If you have a certain GPA. If you can kick your addiction. If you conform to the gender norms that have been assigned to you, if you keep your nose to the grindstone, working and outperforming so that everyone can see what a committed and hardworking servant-leader you are. No, God loves you, period. God is love. And God has given us a heart for love. That is who we are.
Pastor Tracey mentioned last Sunday how important it is right now for us to find ways to listen to the still, small voice within us. The voice that reminds us that we are each God’s chosen one, in our own special and beloved uniqueness. What leads you to hearing that gentle and loving voice? Whatever that is for you is what leads you closer to God and the spiritual life. There is nothing more powerful than knowing ourselves as God knows us. There is a tender and powerful freedom in this knowing, in this finding ourselves shaped out of the rock of God’s infinite love and power and care. It is a love that extends over all creation, and over all eternity. May God speak that truth into your life, and may God give you ears to hear it, and a heart to embrace it.
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