Our ears ring with countless clamoring voices. Not only do voices assail us from TV and radio and computer but also from crowded malls and busy restaurants and noisy classrooms. Add social media to this mix, and our lives become a literal cacophony of voices. The challenge is this–which voices to listen to? Whom do we allow access to the ear and mind and heart, and whom do we filter out? It is a difficult task to tease apart which are worth listening to and which are to be ignored. Indeed, this is challenging enough when discussing the news or current events, but it becomes particularly challenging when discussing one’s self, specifically the question Jesus asks in the Gospel reading for today—who do people say that I am?
I refuse to be that 40-something person who tries to use current slang, but my LCM students told me how they would sum up Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel…and that’s, “What’s the tea, sis?” The rest of us would say something like, “What’s the scoop? Or what’s the skinny? Or simply, what’s the gossip?” But in this particular case, the question Jesus asks is, “What’s the gossip about me?”
While Jesus lived 2000 years ago and therefore was not susceptible to bombardment of voices on social media as we are, as a self-aware human being, he was not immune from wondering what other people thought of him and what they were saying; in this Gospel, Jesus boldly asks the question we are all too afraid to ask….who do people say that I am? How am I spoken about when I am not around? What do people say about me when my name comes up? These questions hit directly at the heart of human vulnerability and insecurity; these questions fuel those voices inside our heads that challenge our sense of worth; alas, even the most confident and poised person, from time to time, tosses and turns, wondering, “What are people saying about me?”
So, as Jesus is walking with his disciples to a village, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply with a variety of amusing albeit inaccurate replies, some say this, others say that–all wrong. He doesn’t seem deterred or even remotely bothered by this. But then, Jesus asks them, “Ok, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” In four words, he nails it. Peter gets it. And Peter’s answer matters to Jesus; we know this because only a few verses later they are arguing, which you really only do with people you care about.
But what makes Peter’s answer so different from what the crowds are saying? Why does he get it right, while the crowds don’t? Because Peter knows Jesus, he’s his friend. He eats with him, sleeps beside him, walks with him. He listens to him preach, watches him heal people, witnesses him touch and love and give life to ones that society has cast out. Peter struggles and argues and wrestles with what he sees and hears and is far from perfect, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s who Jesus is, even if he denies it six short chapters later. At this moment in time, Peter gets it and confesses it all to Jesus–you are Messiah, the one who comes to save, but one who must nevertheless die, and for that I hate you, because I don’t understand any of this, but I also love you –summed up in four short words. You are the Messiah.
Jesus holds the opinions of others at arm’s length, because they are not among his intimate and trusted 12. Peter’s answer, however, matters to Jesus, because Jesus knows Peter and trusts him. Jesus models something brilliant and beautiful today in regards to how to exist in a world that is filled with voices and opinions and answers. Jesus teaches us to trust the voices of those closest to us and to let go of the rest. This is is a necessary survival skill for being a savvy Christian in a crazy world.
You simply cannot listen to every single voice that weighs in on who you are, what they think about you, what they say about you. Oh, friends, if you only knew how I struggle with this, so today I stand firmly with those in need of this liberating Gospel. If you listen to every single external voice that has an opinion about you, you will implode, like a submerged submarine, collapsing under immense pressure from the outside. On the other hand, if you listen only to the voices from within, you explode from pressure built up from within, as the ego bursts forth in unchecked power. But Jesus teaches us a different way, a better way, a wise way. Find the voices you trust and listen to them, let them help guide you as you navigate your way through life. In this reading, Jesus commends to us trusted and authentic–but not perfect–community.
I lived in Seattle, WA, for a year when I was completing my chaplaincy requirement for seminary. At this training, as were a variety of religious and spiritual traditions, including a Catholic, a Methodist, a Wiccan, a pastor from the local FourSquare Church, a Quaker and me, so you can imagine the spirited discussions that ensued. I got to know the Quaker woman very well, in fact, we were best friends during that year. Her name is Susanne. She and her boyfriend Doug were considering getting engaged. She described to me a Quaker tradition called the listening circle, which was, in their case, an opportunity for their friends from their worshiping community to come together for an entire day with the sole purpose of helping them discern whether or not they should be married. The prayer circle looked like this, as she describes it–a circle of chairs with two chairs side by side in the middle. She and Doug sat in the middle, and the community gathered around them. At first, they sat in silence, as they pondered the two, both as individuals and as a couple. This silence lasted over an hour, which apparently isn’t unusual for listening circles. And then the friends began to speak, offering insight and perspective into how they experienced this couple. They offered prayer, they voiced concerns, they shared memories, they conveyed hope for the future, they offered blessings. When the listening circle finally ended, the couple and the community had participated in a sacred and authentic experience, with trusted voices engaging the question–who are we as a couple? She and Doug married, they still live in Seattle and are raising two lovely daughters. I came to trust and admire this community so much, that even now, 21 years later, I still FB message Susanne when something is weighing on my heart, asking for her silence, her critique, her prayer and her insight.
Today we ponder the holiness of the human voice–the comfort it can offer, the wisdom it can convey, the inspiration is can invoke. Consider for a moment those voices in your lives, those trusted ones you turn to when you need an authentic voice. What voices do you listen to when confronted with a decision or are uncertain about a path to take? Who is your trusted circle, small or big, to whom you turn when you need to hear an authentic, even if difficult, word of truth? We give God thanks for these voices in our lives, for their support in navigating difficult waters, for without them, we are adrift.
Without the guidance of our trusted voices, we open ourselves to voices who do not deserve access to our inmost selves, who seek to accuse and wrongly determine our worth. Without these trusted voices, we open ourselves up to angry voices, which only make us angry. Without these trusted voices, we open ourselves up to racist voices, which make us racist. Without them, we open ourselves up to misogynistic voices, which make of us misogynists.
We see this contagion of negative voice all around, with elected leadership spewing vitriol at every opportunity, their voices bellowing from TV and Twitter, cruelly telling grieving Midwestern farmers who are losing their farms “they would have lost them anyway,” telling Texan ranchers their land is now home for a wall that divides not only herds of cattle, but families and communities, disregarding migrant children, whose numbers are at all all-time high and are skyrocketing, who are living their childhoods in cities made of tents.
We cannot be consumed by these angry voices: however, we must listen to them sometimes, because they offend our sense of humanity, motivate us to action, and embolden our sense of empathy and justice. But these voices must be tempered by Gospel, by the voice of Isaiah–a voice that sustains the weary with a word, by the voice of the Wisdom of Solomon–a voice of light and beauty and endurance, by Peter’s confession–an authentic voice identifying Jesus as Messiah.These are the voices that prevail, and we are mouthpieces of those sacred voices, we are now prophetic voices that call for things to change, for unjust laws to be repealed, for the immigrant not to be forgotten, for the hungry to be fed, for the homeless to be housed.
Jesus knows what it’s like to have ears ringing with voices. He himself was the object of many voices throughout his life–prophetic voices announcing him as the Son of God, thundering voices from heaven proclaiming him as God’s Son, jubilant voices from the crowds shouting hosanna to the Son of David. But he also heard cynical voices ask him just who do you think you are? and he heard suspicious voices accuse him of blasphemy and he heard hateful voices demand his crucifixion and he heard mocking voices on the cross and groaning voices of dying men on either side and sobbing voices of his mother and his own voice screaming out his final breath and then the voices were no more, save for the earth lifting up her voice in heaving grief in earthquake and trembling and shadow. And then the earth was silent and all the voices contained within it.
That is, until the bewildered voices said, “He’s not here and we don’t know where he is,” until the jubilant voice said, “He isn’t here, he is risen from the dead,” until the triumphant voices sang together, “Worthy is the lamb who was slain for the sins of the world, who now sits at the right hand of God.”
Jesus, then, is not so troubled that the vast majority of the people don’t understand him. His friends know who he is, even in their imperfections and flaws and fumbling. But most importantly, Jesus knows who he is, even though at times he doesn’t always like who he is. Jesus urges us to also know who we are, even though at times we might not like who we are, to stand strong against our debilitating voices from within and the prevailing winds of inhumanity from without. Jesus urges us to cherish our trusted friends, in their gloriously imperfect authenticity, and to lean on them as a guiding compass when we lose sight of who we are.
Thus strengthened and supported by our treasured trusted voices, we then discover as we journey through life that fewer and fewer voices can harm us, that when the howling winds quiet and the hurricane subsides and the volcanoes belch their last belch, that there is a silence, like the one which Elijah encountered, where the still, small voice of God can be heard, which answers our tormenting question of “Who am I?” with the only answer that matters, “You are mine.”