I grew up in an old house which, like many old houses, was brought “up to date” whenever it got new occupants. When it was first built, the kitchen was an outbuilding! My parents arrived there in 1951, and they put in a kitchen with pickled pine cabinets like the ones on “Ozzie and Harriet.” They wanted a cozy place to eat near the kitchen, reflecting that my mother, not a servant, would cook the meals, so they designed a pass-through in a place where nowadays we might see an island between the kitchen and the dining area. We all sat together there around an old-fashioned dining room table, even though the room itself was not formal. With their choices in arranging our home, my parents sent the message that our mealtimes were important, and those meals always began with a prayer.
But the prayers were not always the same. My parents had many generations of ancestors, both on their mother’s sides, from that small, Southern city, but one side of the family was Methodist and the other Baptist, and in both cases my grandfathers from far away had contributed an Episcopal influence. One grandfather was in the Marine Corps, and my father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and I’m sure they brought those influences to the table as well.
“Bless this food to our use and us to thy loving service. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.” I remember my mother saying those words in her gentle tone. And then I recall my father, in his elegant drawl, praying, “Lord, make us thankful, for these and all our many other blessings, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
Mother and Daddy set the standard, which was not to choose one prayer, or one way, as the right way, but to let my brother and me hear more than one and learn each. We began with “God is Great, God is Good,” but later I was proud to say what I thought was a more grown-up blessing. I remember sitting at the table with my mother’s mother, now a big girl who knew more than a baby grace. “Lord make us thankful for these and all our many other blessings,” I prayed proudly.
But I had chosen to level up in front of the wrong grandmother. This one spurned my prayer, saying, “The Lord shouldn’t have to *MAKE* us thankful.”
And I learned, not for the last time, that we don’t all hear the words of scripture or prayer in the same way.
Suddenly, “Lord, make us thankful” did not sound like a thank you to God but like an admission of spiritual weakness, a lack of gratitude, a gratitude I ought to have felt, apparently, without any assistance from God whatsoever. In fact, I got the feeling God must be pretty disappointed in me, and maybe even angry with me, for saying things the wrong way!
I became a “Bless this food to our use” pray-er, immediately. And despite my parents’ efforts to be broad-minded, which they were, and to teach me to be likewise, I got the message that God, perhaps, was not.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1, NRSV)
The rock from which I was hewn, the heritage that influenced me, at least in part, gave me cause to worry that every word I spoke would be judged and every thought that crossed my mind potentially found wanting. I became more careful. I became quieter.
So imagine how surprised I was to discover that the same God who I worried didn’t like my attempt at saying a blessing over dinner wanted me to get up in front of people and talk about my faith.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15, NRSV)
It’s one of the essential tasks of a faithful life, I’ve come to believe, making an attempt to answer that question. It’s what makes us different from a country club or a service organization or even other churches and faith communities. We come together to explore the questions. Who do people say that Jesus is? And who do we say that he is?
Some said the recently-executed John the Baptist, others the long ago taken-up-into-heaven Elijah and still others, well, an array of other prophets, dead or long gone. They were men known for speaking the truth whether or not the authorities liked it. (They didn’t.)
All of these possibilities, confusing as they sound, suggest people knew Jesus to be something other than ordinary. Finally, he asks the people closest to him, “Who do you say that I am?”
It’s Peter who speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And blessed is he! Peter will be the rock, the solid ground on which a new way of understanding God’s relationship with humanity will be built. What makes him so useful and pleasing to Jesus is that he can hear the truth of who Jesus is. He is open to wisdom that comes not from other people, but from God.
And here is what I find encouraging. Peter is not always right. He is not always brilliant. He tends to blurt things out, to act on impulse and to sometimes say the wrong thing. (Come back next week for the second part of this story, and you’ll see what I mean.) But in this moment, he gets it absolutely right.
He moves beyond what has been passed down over the generations, the rock from which he was hewn.
Peter lived in a culture where tradition was strong, and wisdom was the interpretation of the current priests. Those were not the people supporting Jesus. They were the ones saying things like, “You’d better not expect the Lord to *make* you thankful, young lady!” They laid down the rules for living out the Law, and they were threatened by anyone who says otherwise.
So it took people like Peter, people who would simply leave it all behind and stop listening to the voices of tradition, to make something new on behalf of Jesus.
Now, it’s human nature to make a new tradition almost as soon as we start doing things in a group. We lay down new rules and laws, derive understanding from our experiences together, and pass them down to the next generation. We have a right way of setting the table for Thanksgiving or of cooking the peas for 4th of July or decorating the sanctuary for Christmas. We have a right way of saying prayers and singing hymns and standing up to sing the Gloria, and most of the time we don’t know why that way is right or when it started.
Like my grandmother, we may not always stop to wonder why something works or doesn’t. We may just declare it wrong, because it’s not the way it was passed down to us.
Whose voices influenced you? And who do people say Jesus is today? Out there in the rest of the world he’s considered to be anything from a good person to a spiritual master to a prophet to a made-up character. Even people who believe he lived have lots of different ways to think of him. He is Jesus, our brother, kind and good. He is teacher or rabbi. He is what a friend. He is a little baby in a manger (and that’s the one some people want to pray to, if you’ve seen Talladega Nights!). We call him Shepherd and Savior and King and Lord.
“Lord, make us thankful.”
When I was a little girl, I didn’t think about whether Lord meant Jesus, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, or the grown-up, died-and-rose-again Lord Jesus Christ. I said the words because they had been repeated to me, passed down to me, and I had learned them. Like my parents, I adapted old thoughts with new understandings. I grew up and learned from my own life and from other faithful people what it meant to call Jesus “Lord” and to know him as the “Son of the Living God.” I grew up and came to understand Jesus as a saving bridge between my human failings and the God who wanted to love me all along. I came to realize that through his life and death and resurrection, he really did make me thankful.
What do you call him? Who is he to you, this Jesus? Who do you say that he is?
Peter had to learn to talk about something unbelievable, to bring across to others his message that the living man he knew had died only to live again. Peter had to find a way to tell others who Jesus was and what his life and death and resurrection meant. Peter lived into being the rock by bringing Jesus’ love and God’s forgiveness to the world.
And that is the rock from which we are hewn, this church and each of us. It’s the heritage of our faith, to share the Good News that God can overcome death and bring new life. It’s the good word God calls us to spread around and pass down. Amen.