by the Reverend Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
August 27, 2017
I remember a Thanksgiving dinner, years and years ago, probably in the late 1960’s or early 70’s. There were twenty one of us in all. My parents were hosting, and my two brothers and one sister, one surviving grandmother, two uncles and two aunts, ten cousins, and I had just finished dinner.
Those were the days when people dressed up for holiday dinners and my collar was chafing my eight year-old neck. I took off my clip-on bow tie and undid my top button.
Even though my mom was really the host, cooking and serving the food, and making sure everyone had what they needed, my grandmother saw herself as the captain of the table. Because of that, she thought it was her job to monitor her fourteen grandchildren’s and grandnephews’ manners. Needless to say, she had bitten off more than she could chew and her self-appointed role did not make her a popular figure at the table.
I remember her telling us to say “please” when we asked for the gravy or mashed potatoes. We mostly did so, but she watched us like a hawk and made sure to correct us when needed.
One of my aunts and my older cousins and my big sister saw themselves as primary helpers and they assisted my mom with the serving. My other aunt saw herself as chief story teller and regaled us with tales of Thanksgivings long ago. Unfortunately, these were the same stories she’d told every year since we’d been born.
Dinner was over now, and my dad was making a fire in the fireplace. It was his job to light the fire and to tend it.
My older cousins, especially the boys, saw themselves as mentors to the younger ones, including me, and they took us under their wings as we went outside and began to throw the football around.
My two uncles felt kind of awkward, sort of left out. There was really nothing for them to do and I, for one, noticed the way that they distanced themselves from the rest of us. Who nows what they were thinking or feeling? Family gatherings can be weird.
But there we were now, in front of the fireplace, the wood catching and starting to give off warmth, staving off the March chill. And one of my uncles said to my dad and my other uncle, “Can you believe all these kids and their navel gazing?”
This was in the era that many of you remember, the time when teenagers and young adults were being encouraged to find themselves, to come to a place of self-realization. And these three World War II veterans were completely contemptuous of this pursuit. To the teens and young adults of that time and of our time, it was and is an essential process. We must discover who we are in order to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy.
But to these three guys, drinking sherry around the fire, who, only a few years earlier, had risked their lives to fight the Nazis and save the free world, this whole thing about finding your identity seemed self-indulgent. They called it “staring at your belly button”. They knew their identity: Man. Protector. Husband. Father. Provider. Why gaze any further?
I get it. Their role was clear and they fulfilled it with bravery and resolve.
But my answer to that question (“Wy gaze any further?”) is that, nowadays, we do not always have to accept the role that our families and societies and governments give to us. It has become not only normal but expected that teens and young adults intentionally enter into a process of self-discovery as a way of preparing ourselves for a successful and thoughtful life.
The increasing number of high school graduates who are taking gap years before college is evidence of how much we’ve come to value what previous generations thought of as a silly and self-absorbed practice: Asking that question, Who am I?
In recent months and weeks, many of us have felt the need to decide who we are and where we stand politically. And many of us have decided to part ways with others’ expectations of us, perhaps taking on new identities as activists and resisters when, in the past, we’ve felt supportive of our government, or kind of neutral or apathetic, and were uninvolved.
We’ve also come into a time when sexual and gender identity have become much more fluid realities than they’ve been in the past. I can’t imagine my own sexual or gender identity being in question, but that’s probably because of when I was raised.
When we want to discern each other’s identity, we look and listen for clues to help us: body language, clothing, hairstyle and makeup, tone of voice, vocabulary, choice of conversation topics. We consciously and unconsciously use these things to tell others who we are.
How about you? Have you answered that question, Who am I? Or are you still searching for an answer? What signals are you putting out there? What are you telling others about yourself when you get dressed in the morning, when you strike up a conversation or post something on Facebook?
In this morning’s reading, Jesus asks his disciples what they are hearing about who people think he is — and their answer is very interesting. They say that people think Jesus is one of their spiritual heroes from the past, come back to life: John the Baptist, Elijah the prophet, Jeremiah the prophet, etc.
But Jesus quickly asks a follow up question: Who do you say that I am?
And without missing a beat, Peter, the head disciple, answers as if he is a smart kid sitting up front here during the children’s message: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
This is a significant moment because, in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus almost never comes right out and says who he is, and he doesn’t here, either. But he does praise Peter effusively for his answer, so we hear him loud and clear. He’s been telling his disciples who he is for months through his actions and stories, but now he is ready to have it spoken out loud.
How about you? What would you say if Jesus asked you that question? You may be thinking that it doesn’t matter, that there is no reason for us to back each other into a corner about this, and I’d say you’re right, to a degree.
We are each on a journey of discovery about ourselves, about each other, about the world, and about God. There is no need to define everything right now or on any particular day.
However, I believe there comes a time on all of our journeys and on our collective journey as a congregation to say definitively what it is we believe. Sara Holland, Bill Ketchum, and Suzy Burba are all on a pathway towards ordination, and they are constantly being asked who they are, where they stand, and what they believe about God. While that can get kind of old sometimes, if you ask them about it, my guess is that they’ll tell you that it forces them to keep moving forward toward a more fulfilling faith experience.
So I ask you this morning, Who do you say that Jesus is? Historical figure? Storyteller? Political agitator? Teacher? Prophet? Human being? Divine presence? The one who rescued you? Spiritual authority figure? Creator of community? The center of our lives?
I invite and challenge you to take some time this week to answer that question for yourself. Whatever your response is, and even if it changes the next time you answer, I pray that the process will bring you closer to Jesus and provide some much needed spiritual energy for your week.