August 21, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20 Psalm 138
1st Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6 2nd Reading: Romans 12:1-8
I promised to tell you about camp, and now that I have had a week to reflect, I might be able to start putting my experiences into words. I see some connections to the readings for today that I will try to explain. Let me start with a little disclaimer, that camp was an experience that is difficult to put into words, like many things in life.
The main connection with the texts and what I experienced at camp has to do with identity. There in the texts it is talking about who Jesus is, and who Peter is, and who we are—whether we are conformed or transformed. The readings explore who these individuals are and who we are in community and what it means to be the church.
Camp Odyssey was very much concerned with these issues too. We first built a safe place where we all trusted each other and learned to work together. We built community where we knew we could face tough challenges together and rely on each other, make mistakes and forgive ourselves and each other.
That was the first day when we had our challenge course. In our small groups we learned to problem-solve and work together using everyone’s gifts to reach a goal. For instance we were given 2-foot lengths of gutter and told to get a golf ball from point A to point B—a distance of about 20 feet. There were about 7 of us with pieces of gutter and we had to get it in a hat. The ball had to keep moving forward at all times. We problem- solved together. We learned to put our pieces of gutter at only slight tilts so the ball would roll slowly enough for the people at the front to get to the end and line up their gutter. We learned to point our gutters directly at the goal. We learned about communication and encouragement. We had a fabulous sense of accomplishment when we finished this exercise. And then we were given the extra challenge of having 2 of our group members blind folded. But we weren’t discouraged. We helped each other even more and met the challenge in even less time than the original assignment.
This community of King of Kings has built communication and trust and teamwork over the years. You didn’t have to do it all in one day like this group of teens. You’ve problem-solved and hit roadblocks and started all over again and encouraged and assisted and used everyone’s gifts. You have gone through your own challenge course, over the years, and become closer as a result and that will continue to go on. You’ll continue to face new challenges with hope as your mission statement affirmations suggest. On some of these challenges you will succeed and others fail, but you will know that you will be loved and included. It is really about the process of becoming together and learning who you are that matters rather than the end result about whether you met your end goal, whatever that is.
Jesus and the Disciples had a three-year challenge course. They worked together. They met challenges. They failed at challenges. They built confidence. They encouraged each other. They became a very close-knit community.
Once we built trust in community and confidence in ourselves, at camp, we moved on to learning about ourselves. We have to know who we are before we can begin to understand who another person is. You’ve probably seen this plenty of times and we’ve all done it—when we’re unsure of who we are, we might try to become someone we’re not. I remember when I was 12, getting a red ten-speed just like my friend Trinidy. She had one and I wanted one, too.
In the Gospel, Peter is learning who he is as reflected in the eyes of Jesus. Peter is becoming. He’s just tried to walk on the sea and fallen in and been called “you of little faith” by the person whose opinion he cares about the most, Jesus. Now, he gets it right and he’s being commended and told that he is actually a rock—that would make sense why he would sink. He is a rock—that would make sense why he is so dense and doesn’t get it. He is a rock—he is strong and faithful and Jesus will build something on this strong foundation. Peter is becoming. His identity isn’t so simple. He’s discovering who he is through experience and reflection and interaction.
At camp, too, we spent time reflecting on who we are as individuals and who we are as groups of people. We got into groups with those who were like us and tried to discern our own identity together. Being a woman, I got to ask with the other females, what does it mean to be a woman? Those of us who are white got together and asked ourselves, who am I as a privileged white person in this culture? Immigrants asked themselves what it means to be an immigrant in this country. It is a question none of the groups could answer for the other but we each had to answer for ourselves to know ourselves more fully.
We asked ourselves: Where do I come from? What are my communication styles? What assumptions do I hold about others and where do these come from? What makes me, me? What makes us, us?
The default answer to the question about who I am is just to give in to all the pressures and become conformed to this world. It might be easiest to make ourselves in the world’s image—to take on the priorities of the world, to believe the messages we hear that what is most important is to gather power, money, pleasure and focus on these. But even by the teenage years, most of us can see that this isn’t working. The campers could see how these pursuits were failing. They’d experienced divorce, alcoholism, violence. They’d seen the other side of power. They had all been personally hurt in someone else’s pursuit of power.
So what is the alternative to being conformed to this world? Paul says it is to be transformed and Jesus offers that transformation. Who among us can transform ourselves? It is only through interaction with others that transformation can take place. It is something that happens to us, not that we do to ourselves. But some of us seem more ready for transformation than others. How do we set ourselves up for transformation?
I saw all these campers, so honest about their pain, so open in their experiences, so trusting and eager for something different than the BS they were hearing from their families about who they should be and from the media saying who they should be and their school saying who they should be. They were so ready for transformation and they trusted us to take them through a process. At times they were angry at us. At times they almost gave up. We took them to the places they were most ashamed of and hurt by. And they stuck with it and faced how they had internalized all these messages from the world and put them on each other. Seeing that clearly, they were able to set them aside and really see each other as human beings, and allowed themselves to be seen as more than just a set of assumptions but as people, and they were truly transformed, and I was transformed, too.
Jesus too takes us the deepest darkest places within ourselves and asks us to look down deep—to see how we bind and loose one another with our assumptions and with our pressures of how others are supposed to be, how we keep each other down by not sharing what we have, by not seeing others as people, how not knowing who we are and who others are keeps us all imprisoned in sin. And Jesus goes to that darkest, scariest place within himself, where he feels abandoned by God and all his friends and where even his life is taken away, yet he still is. His identity stands in relationship—he is God’s Son, he is our savior, he is the Messiah of the world, he was there at the creation of the universe. Nothing could change that.
In the same way, nothing can change who we are at the core of our identity. Our friends might reject us. We might be losing our battle with a debilitating disease. Our child or parent or sibling might die. We might lose our home, go hungry, and be despised. Yet we are still of value to God. We are children of God. And this community as Christ’s body in the world is here to truly see each person as they really are and show each person that they are of value. The church is here to be a safe place for transformation and to encourage it in one another. At times the church may prevent transformation, which means it isn’t really being the body of Christ. At other times God works through the church to cause this transformation. It might be happening for one and not another, or we might be someplace on that journey of transformation and not even know it. Let us be open to God’s transforming love, being honest, looking deep within ourselves, learning who we are, and sharing of ourselves.
We didn’t talk much about God at camp. But those youth developed a love for one another based on truth-telling and trust-building and really seeing each other. They saw each other’s faults and weaknesses and continued to love each other and allow themselves to be loved. From what I know, God is love. I saw God/love reflected in that community at camp. I cried from the beauty of it. And I often see God/love reflected here, too, and am at times overwhelmed by it. Let’s offer that God/love even beyond our walls until those around us can see God/love clearly and be invited into their own journey of transformation until we can all be freed to become who we truly are.