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Sermons

Who Do You Say That I Am?

September 15, 2013

Bible Reading

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall
continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble
hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his
name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered
me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never
be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and
was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear
him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those
who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear
him have no want.

The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those
who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

(Psalm 34:4-10)


Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”

(Luke 9:18-20)

Sermon

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear, Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

A dirt road borders the Almont New Church Assembly property—Tubspring Road—and every time I walk down this road, something wonderful happens.

During the women’s retreat there this past May, I was strolling down this road contemplating the theme of this year’s convention, “A Swedenborgian Odyssey.” Those of you here who know and love Almont are familiar with the point in the road where there is an intersection that offers four clear directions to the traveler. I found myself wandering unknowingly right to the center of this intersection, where I paused and considered in which direction I might go.

I put myself in the mindset of traveling on a spiritual journey and stood for a while facing each of the four directions. I turned and saw a very flat, yet beautiful landscape of beginning crops and open farmland. I turned to the next direction and saw the same thing. I turned to the third position, and again, the same landscape. But, down the fourth road—ah, a big rock, much like the rock Rev. Jonathan Mitchell referred to several days ago from Isaiah . . . except I’m pretty sure Isaiah’s rock didn’t have graffiti on it! Right next to this rock there stands a big, beautiful tree that reminded me of the tree of life. I thought to myself, “This is the road that I want to travel!”

Meditating upon our convention theme, I headed down the road toward the rock and the tree. That is when it happened. As clear as the bell that rings from our quaint little Almont country chapel, I heard inside my heart the voice of the Lord ask a question. He whispered, “Who do you say that I am?” Just after He spoke, a funny little toad hopped by, and I became distracted from the Presence before me (those of you who know me well know that this is like me). The moment faded, but the question has remained strong in my heart over the past few months.

I believe—with all of the changes taking place at this point in our church’s history, and for each one of us personally—it is time to look at this question with more intentionality, to ask ourselves who we believe the Lord to be. Our values and priorities and everything that we do flow from our answer to this question. I invite each one of you here to consider the question and take it back with you to the people in your local societies, to invite people to talk about it at retreats, association meetings, regional meetings, or perhaps in worship.

Every once in a while, someone comes along who reminds us of the reality and the power of the presence of the Risen Lord moving with us and through us. We are given hope and sustained by their stories. Recently, a man came to our church in Royal Oak, Michigan, for the first time and, after sharing worship with us, purchased a copy of Heaven and Hell. The next week he returned and urgently asked to have coffee with me to talk about his thoughts on the book and his personal faith journey. We met, and he told me about a most amazing occurrence.

He was born a cultural Jew and raised in New York. At the age of nine, he contracted polio and became very ill. At that time, near the end of World War II, the vast majority of the children afflicted with polio died. One night, he felt the presence of the Risen Lord specifically move through his body and heal it completely. He knew he was made well by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, as it turned out, the doctors confirmed soon afterward that he was clear of the disease. The doctors could not explain it, and to this day, many years later, he searches for the unfolding meaning of this healing.

Now, I bet that this man has a pretty clear sense of the answer to the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” Indeed, he felt the reality of the Lord’s presence in his very bones and blood. With a humble tone to his witness, he confirms Peter’s conviction: “You are the Messiah.”

Most of us here have probably not had this kind of direct encounter. But this is as it should be. Our individual journeys are all supposed to be different and unique. Honoring diversity of experience and open-mindedness is a rich part of our theology in the church. But we do get glimpses every now and then of the Spirit that moves among us so personally. We get what we need to sustain and inspire us on our journey.

For myself, I feel the Lord present as a voice inside that speaks to me. Last May, I was guided by a clear voice inside that spoke the question to my heart. And then, as I sat with it, a shift happened. The question, “Who do you say that I am?” shifted toward myself and became “Who am I?” The two questions worked off each other in my mind, as if they were in a dance, so that I have come to see that the two are clearly intertwined. A direct relationship exists between my living experience and understanding of the Lord and my own sense of myself. The more time I spend praying and living with the Lord’s presence, the more I am aware of—and awake to—my own human potential and the various levels of my inner darkness that tend toward secrecy and selfishness. The Lord’s light uncovers what needs to be healed. We can put our faith in that.

For most of us, I believe, it is fairly easy to acknowledge the Lord when we are in the midst of the joys of life. But we can, more and more, seek to merge the Lord’s Spirit into our darkness and our times of suffering. This is a shift to bring all of who we are into the Light. Our suffering transforms into mercy, compassion, and deeper understanding when we ask the Lord to be with us in it. The point is, then, no longer the suffering alone; rather, the point is that our suffering leads to a higher kindness and charity. This intentional shift toward the Lord’s light is needed more today.

The Rev. Paul Zacharias published an article in the Messenger last year suggesting to Convention that, in order for our church to survive and to move successfully through all of the changes taking place today, we must be willing to shift our mindset and grow—both in a personal sense and as a church collectively. I believe that the shift we need is to move closer to the Lord’s presence and to walk with Him by our side—every step of the way. All of life, then, shifts and becomes holy.

Prayer

O, Lord, we thank you, we thank you, we thank you—for the gift of this time here together with You. As we continue to walk our faith journey down the road less traveled, and as we discover more of who we are, keep us near you; safe under your Providence and open to your Spirit. With you by our side, we can serve the higher good, and we are truly blessed. O Lord, we thank you, we thank you, we thank you. Amen.

Rev. Renee Machiniak