Our True Foundation

Our True Foundation

“Look to the rock from which you were hewn….” Isaiah 51:1

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 27, 2017 – 12A Pentecost

My parents – God rest their souls – were high school sweethearts who married one month after they graduated from high school. My father was 18, my mother 17. They were from a tiny farming town of about 1,800 folks in Pennsylvania by the name of Newville. My dad was the youngest of eight and grew up on a dairy farm. My mother was the daughter of the guy who ran the feed store in town, my Grandpa Arby. Ours was not a Brahmin family.

At the time mom and dad married, they had neither money nor jobs. The only thing they knew for sure was that they wanted to get out of Newville. So, the day after they married, in July of 1957, my father enlisted in the Air Force and was told to report to Lawry Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, just outside of Denver. And so off my parents went, in a car borrowed from one of their grandparents, and spent their honeymoon driving across country staying in the cheapest possible motels. I figure that I must have become a twinkle in somebody’s eye somewhere around Kansas because I was born nine months and 3 days after they were married. You do the math.

Eventually my parents arrived at base and my father reported for duty. Because he was married, they did not require him to stay in the barracks with the other single enlisted men, but rather provided him with a small 18×6 foot trailer. And after I came along, that’s where the three of us lived, basically in one room, for the next several years – in the Capri Trailer Park.

While I don’t remember much from those days, I have kept an old Polaroid black and white photo of my mom and me in front of our little trailer. I keep the photo not only as a reminder of these humble beginnings, but because it taught me a valuable lesson about my true home. Many years after the picture was taken, when I was in the third grade, after we had moved to California, my teacher asked our class to do a little project on our family origins. You remember the assignment: bring in some photos of your family, and your first house, and share a story about your personal history.

Well, when my turn comes, I pull out my prized photo of our little trailer and began to tell, in the halting way of a third grader, the story I just told you. But then, in the middle of my presentation, I hear one of my classmates say under his breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear: “trailer trash.”

I’m not sure as a third grader that I entirely knew what ‘trailer trash’ meant, but I know enough to know that it isn’t good, and that the roars of laughter are at my expense. I pretend that I don’t hear the slur and just continue on, stumbling through the rest of my presentation, my eyes welling up, fighting back the tears.

That school day couldn’t end quickly enough. I run home, sobbing, and tell my mom and dad what had happened. They listen and do their best to comfort me. But what I really remember is what my grandmother says. She just happened to be visiting that week. After I calm down, she comes over to me and says: “Ginky.” Don’t ask me why she called me “Ginky,” but she did. “Don’t ever let someone else tell you who you are. You’re not trash. You are God’s child and precious in His sight.”

It sounds almost trite, I know, but her words were borne of a grandmother’s wisdom, a grandmother’s faith. She may not have known it, but she was, of course, echoing the words of the great prophet, Isaiah, from our first lesson. Speaking to the Israelites in exile, as they saw their homeland corrupted by invaders, the great prophet reminds God’s people that their true home lies not in the land, but in God’s sustaining promises to them. Isaiah reminds them that their true identity resides not in the stories the Babylonians are telling about them, nor even in the stories they tell about themselves, but rather their identity may be found in God’s story about them and for them in sacred Scripture.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” Isaiah says. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” While “the heavens will vanish like smoke” and “the earth will wear out like a garment,” the bedrock of the living God and His promises to us are the one thing we can always count on, the one place we can always stand.

Likewise, our gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus himself, in calling the first community of followers together, seeks to rest our faith on this very same bedrock of God’s reality. Thus, Saint Peter, whose name in Greek means rock, becomes the foundation upon whom Jesus chooses to ground the community of faith that ultimately becomes the Church.

All of which is to say that understanding and honoring our foundations – knowing exactly where we stand – is at the core of a mature faith. Saint Augustine put it this way: “If you wish to rise up in life, begin by descending. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundations.”

The existential urgency of this task of understanding who we are, and whose we are, comes to a climax, of course, in the question that Jesus poses to his would-be followers in today’s gospel. He comes at the question a bit sideways at first, asking the disciples, “So who the crowds say that I am?” Jesus intuits that others are seeking to control him by defining him with their own stories as to his identity. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” the disciples tell Jesus; “others say you are Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, by looking his followers in the eyes and asking: “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter, always eager to please, famously answers that question by recognizing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And that is a true and bold thing to say; but as the disciples quickly learn, it is but the mere beginning of an answer. The more difficult task is to unpack what it means to say this. There is a very real sense in which all of Christian history has been an ongoing effort by the Church to respond to that haunting question – “Who do you say that I am?” – as we try to live out our answer.

Which brings me back to my grandmother. In addition to being the person who saved me from my trash-talking third grade friends, Grandma Dotty was also the one person who took me to church when I was a boy while my parents were wandering in the wilderness of agnosticism. Many years later, as a rebellious teenager visiting her during the summers, I complained about having to accompany her to church on Sundays. “Its so boring,” I whined. “Why bother?” “Because,” she said, “Church is where we learn who God is, and who we are.”

Once again, simple words, but a profound truth. We discover our truest identities as persons, not by listening to what others say about us, nor by spinning our own narratives about ourselves, but by returning to our foundational story in Scripture, where we meet God and learn who we are in relation to God. And so, challenged by these words from my grandmother, I began a life-long journey of trying to answer today’s gospel question for myself, the question Jesus posed so long ago to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

Such a question cannot, of course, be answered simply, and I know I don’t have words that are adequate to the task. So, instead I’ll lean on someone else, someone from whom I’ve learned much about the Christian life: and that is the great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner. Buechner was once asked who Jesus is for him, and this is what he said:

“We all have Gospel moments that mean the most to us,” Buechner began, “those stories in which Jesus’ identity is most clearly revealed. As for me, I have always particularly treasured that moment when Pilate asks Jesus, ‘What is the truth?,’ and Jesus just stands there in silence, presumably because nothing he might answer could be as eloquent as just the silence, just him, God become human, standing there, for us.”

“I treasure also,” Buechner says, “the moment on the cross when the good thief turns to Jesus and, speaking for all of us, says, ‘Jesus, remember me,’ and we know as surely as we know anything that Jesus remembers him and will always remember him.”

“And then there is the moment, after the resurrection, when just at dawn, on the beach, the risen Christ is waiting by a charcoal fire and calls out to his fishermen friends, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ And in that first, fresh light of day, they come and have it. And have it from his hands. And are fed by him.”

“The Jesus I know,” Buechner continues, “is also the Jesus who said, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’ and it is the Jesus who still says that now, to every last one of us, the young as well as the old, the lucky as well as the unlucky, because there is not one of us who is not in some way heavy laden and in need of the rest Jesus brings.”

“Indeed,” Buechner goes on, “perhaps it is by what Jesus brings that we know best the Jesus who is. To the blinded he brings vision. To the deafened the sound of a voice unlike all other voices. To the deadened the breath of life.”

But in the end, says Buechner, “the Jesus who is, is the one whom we search for even when we do not know that we are searching, and hide from even when we do not know that we are hiding. ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ are the very last words in the Bible, and they are there for a reason. For it is as the One who comes to us in our greatest need that we know Jesus most truly.”

That is as good an answer as I know to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is the One who always comes to us in our greatest need.

Come, Lord Jesus.