August 27, 2017
In times of hate and fear, we often look to stories to help us through. For many of us, scripture is one place of sacred stories and meaning, and still for others we might find something of the holy in the stories of our time. I have a friend who was recently describing how Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” series was foundational in how she thinks about God, and continues to shape her view of life. It’s a series of books that can speak to some of the challenges of our time. And then just yesterday I saw this quote from that series posted on a blog and it struck me how well it weaved into our scripture for the day to speak to us, especially in light of the recent rise of hate groups. It says, “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who they are, really knows, then they don’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers…when everyone is really and truly Named, then the Enemy will be vanquished.”
When everyone is really and truly named…this is the phrase that’s been turning over and over again in my head, and when paired with our scripture, what seems to emerge is a rich conversation about how we might face some of the challenges of today.
When I look at the text in Matthew, I see a very human Jesus who is still working out what it means to be fully himself, to name who he is and what he’s called to. He’s coming immediately off the experience of yet again being tested by the Pharisees, and maybe he needs a moment to stop and reflect. Not long before, he seems to be at the height of his teaching. He’s gathered crowds of thousands of people and managed to create a great meal, a feeding of the 5,000, showing people a way of generosity by inviting everyone to share what they have, reminding them of the manna story where all had enough. But as some of you may remember from last week, he has also recently been challenged by the Canaanite woman, who flipped the script and taught Jesus that his call and mission was bigger than he originally thought, and it’s possible he is still taking that in, trying to understand what that means for his life and ministry. He knows he is not the Messiah that many Jews want, a military leader who will rise up against the Romans, but he is still working on what a new kind of Messiah means, one of love and compassion and transformation.
And now here he is with his disciples, in this animated conversation with Peter. Jesus begins by asking a question. “So what are people saying about me?” to which the disciples reply, “well, maybe a great teacher, or a prophet.” But then Jesus brings it to a more personal place, perhaps caught in a moment of uncertainty himself, needing to hear what his beloved community can reflect back to him, but still seeking the transformative power of relationship as he always does, and asks, “But what about you? What do you see in me? Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, in a moment of intuitive knowing and deep presence, mirrors to Jesus what he has seen his teacher do so many times before. He speaks the fullness and potential of what he sees in Jesus. He has become a Namer, and he knows who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus immediately sees what’s happening, and full of renewed hope, mirrors back the naming for Peter, drawing out his fullness of self. “Blessed are you…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” It’s a beautiful exchange, one that illuminates what’s possible when we become Namers to each other. We start seeing things we didn’t think were possible before. We start to imagine what truly living could look like.
It’s worth pausing for a moment and noting that Jesus is not saying, “Peter, you’re the rock that will never make a mistake and you will always live up to your best self in every moment.” If that were the case, he wouldn’t be very human and we might simply stop trying to relate this story to our lives. But in fact, as we can read in the text that follows, Peter is about to mess up shortly after and Jesus will rebuke him for it, not to mention he will ultimately deny Jesus. Messing up is just a part of being human. But the thing that’s inspiring to me is what comes in the midst of the messiness. Jesus is naming what he sees in Peter, his potential, drawing him to live out who he truly is, saying I believe in you and I know you can do this. And he’s doing it because he knows that it is an important part of being in a loving, human community. Without that naming, we forget who we are and what we can be. Theologian Richard Rohr articulates it this way. “Without a constant infusion of the Holy Spirit, without a constant desire and trust, Lord give me your Holy Spirit, we all close down. We do. That’s the nature of life, to circle the wagons around a smaller and smaller self. To take fewer and fewer risks. To never go outside your own comfort zone of a few people who are just like you.”
Jesus is asking Peter to go beyond his smaller self and reach for everything he is. And he does it again a few chapters later with the whole community. And he is doing it for us now, among us, through us.
When have you experienced this naming, where someone saw you for who you truly are, or even who you could become? Was it in a moment of crises or self doubt, and someone close to you reminded you of who you are, helped name what you couldn’t see at the time?
My partner Sarah recently told me a story about her time on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana when she was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She was a third grade teacher, and each day, after the kids finished their homework, she would offer the special prize of drawing for them whatever they wanted. One girl, Remembrance, always asked for horses. Now, there’s a sad reason that she always asked for horses, and it’s connected to her name. Her dad was a bull rider at rodeos, and just before she was born, he was killed while riding. So her mother named her Remembrance in memory of him, which, as Sarah says, is a lot of pressure to put on a girl. And remembrance always seemed to carry with her a certain amount of sadness. And each day, she would ask for horses. But before Sarah could finish drawing a horse for her, she would promptly draw her own horse that was, in Sarah’s words, “much better than mine.” And Sarah would say, “ you are so good at drawing horses, Remembrance.” And she would ask back, “am I an artist?” And Sarah would reply, “yes, you are an artist. You are a very good artist.” And each day, the same thing. She would ask again, “am I an artist?” and Sarah would reply, “yes, you are an artist.” And over time, after Sarah named it again and again, Remembrance finally started to believe that she was an artist. She finally felt like she could claim her gift, to truly know who she was. She had been named, and she understood.
Naming can happen across whole communities as well. I want to take a minute to go back and read our starting quote. “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who they are, really knows, then they don’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers…when everyone is really and truly Named, then the Enemy will be vanquished.” I’ve been thinking a lot about our fallen angels these days, especially pondering Charlottesville in light of this teaching of naming our best selves. Didn’t Jesus continuously draw out the best in even his enemies? Didn’t he invite to dinner tax collectors, those who would have been an oppressive force to most Jews? Didn’t he teach us to love our enemies? What does that mean for us when there is a rise of white supremacist groups in our communities across the country? Is it possible that God is calling us to name the best in those people, too, just as our brothers and sisters in the Black Freedom movement did?
I’ll be honest and say my experience of this kind of naming has been rare lately. Mostly I hear people shame or cast out white supremacists, weather they are public leaders or showing up at rallies. Let me be clear. We need to dismantle white supremacy and stop violence where it occurs. But there are also people underneath those ideologies, children of God who also need love, who I believe need us to stop shaming them and start calling them back to community. And I know the anger and shock and sadness we feel about them is real. There are some deep questions to wrestle with right now. Ruby Sales, an amazing Civil Right leader, offered this reflection in an interview with Krista Tippet.
“What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin addicted because they feel their lives have no meaning because of the trickle down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone that’s been told that their essence is whiteness and power and domination, and when that no longer exists, they feel as if they’re dying or they get caught up in the throws of death? I don’t hear any theologies speaking—that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t all agree with him, people think that he’s speaking to their pain that they’re feeling…where is a theology that redefines for them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of any place today. There’s a spiritual crisis of white Americans. It’s a crisis of meaning. We talk a lot about Black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology…I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational…It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed…I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”
There’s a lot in there to chew on, but to me, the question that seems the most persistent in this moment is, “Do we believe that white people, especially those who feel the pain that Ruby named, are worthy of being redeemed?” What would it mean for us to name the best in their humanity? If we could take that first step of believing in their capacity to live fully human lives, what might come next? I don’t know if Jesus knew what would come next when he posed his question to Peter, or even what would come next after they both had named the best in each other. There are no easy answers here. Just the power of naming, and a community to live it out. Amen.