A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 24, 2017 (Proper 16A)
So, did you see the eclipse? Did you catch Eclipse Fever or experience Eclipse Mania? Maybe you drove out to Carbondale, Illinois, to get the full effect. Or down to Nashville.
Now, I didn’t really get caught up in the hype. I didn’t pick up a pair of the special glasses or stare at it through a cereal box. The eclipse happened on my last day of vacation and so at the appointed time I went out into the backyard and waited. And kept waiting. At one point it seemed to get a little overcast. But that’s all I noticed.
For me the whole thing was rather…underwhelming. Like opening-Al Capone’s-vault underwhelming. I know plenty of people who had a different experience, especially my friends who geek out on astronomy and drove miles to catch the eclipse in all its “totality.” And some of you may have had a life-changing eclipse experience for all I know.
But the thing I really appreciated about the whole event was how it united people all over the country. In increasingly divided times, there was something comforting about the unity inherent in seeing everyone looking up and focusing on something bigger than themselves. For two brief minutes, the divisions among us ceased and people everywhere were suddenly all facing the same way, looking up. Sure, it took a rare, cosmic, celestial event to get people thinking beyond themselves but it was a start. It offered a moment of hope amidst the partial darkness.
Another rare, cosmic, celestial event took place a couple thousand years ago when God took on human form. I’m not really talking about the Star of Bethlehem but the Incarnation itself; of God entering our world as Jesus Christ. And just as you might have been slightly envious of those lucky enough to live in that 70-mile wide eclipse-viewing path, it’s hard not to envy those first disciples a little bit. They stood right in the path of this Jesus and experienced first-hand and in real time the Savior of the world. Yes, there was a price to pay — and they all paid it — but for a few fleeting years they stood staring at the Son of God, absorbing his teachings, basking in the warm glow of the Word made flesh.
But it’s not just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. They had to grapple with the question that continues to be asked of each one of us. A question of identity and faith and discipleship. The question Jesus pointedly asks Peter in this morning’s gospel passage: “But who do you say that I am?”
This question gets to the very heart of it all. And we can’t just sit back at a safe distance with our noses in our bulletins and read the question. We have to answer it! Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you say that Jesus is a nice guy famous for a bunch of memorable sayings? Do you say that Jesus is great, as long as he works around your own busy schedule? Do you say that Jesus is the Light of World, but only on your terms or when it’s convenient?
Or do you say, along with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of the living God, upon whom your entire life revolves? This confession of Peter is bold and dramatic and clear. “Jesus,” Peter seems to answer, “You. Are. The. Man.” And he means it. With all his heart he means it.
And yet Peter doesn’t always act as if he does. Totality of relationship with Jesus is the goal, but partiality is the reality. Even for Peter, “the rock” upon whom Jesus built his church, total relationship is elusive. Peter stumbles and falls and denies. And so do we. Over and over again. We strive to “not be conformed to this world” as Paul writes to the church in Rome. But it doesn’t always go very smoothly. Why? Because, in a word, we are human. That’s not an excuse; it’s a reality.
But the good news in this, the mercy in this, is that this isn’t a one-and-done question. “Who do you say that I am” is a constant refrain in the life of every Christian. It is a question that we must encounter and wrestle with and answer every single day of our lives. Who do you say that Jesus is?
Well, one way we answer this question is by coming here. And this is where the recent eclipse becomes a helpful model. Think about it. This is one of the few places where we get people with diverse opinions in the same room, facing the same way. We don’t need to wait 100 years for the stars to align — or the sun and moon in this case. We don’t even need goofy looking glasses. We can simply show up and together face this altar. Together we can answer that seminal question of faith identity that undergirds our gatherings: “But who do you say that I am?”
The catch is we can’t do this by ourselves or alone or in isolation. Individually we stumble; together we lift each other up. Individually we don’t have all those gifts Paul talks about — of prophecy and teaching and exhortation and generosity and compassion — but together we do. Individually we worship in partiality; together we worship in totality.
You know, for all my mildly curmudgeonly attitude towards the eclipse, I did hear stories of great joy surrounding the rare event. Communities gathered in anticipation and expectation and wonder to witness the event not in isolation but together. This is precisely what we do when we gather as a community. We set aside our differences and focus on something larger than ourselves. And by doing so, we gain perspective on what really matters in this life. We incorporate Jesus’ values of love and compassion and generosity into our very souls. We take on his message of self-sacrifice and repentance and mercy into our hearts.
Here on the South Shore we may have only experienced a partial eclipse. But that’s okay. It’ll be better for us in 2024. In the meantime we can keep striving to move beyond partial relationship with Jesus Christ. Moving ever closer to totality.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017