In Spite of Ourselves

The Rev. Betsy Porter
St. James’, Eureka Springs
August 21, 2011
Year A, Proper 16
Matthew 16:13-20

Two weeks ago today, Clifford and I were at St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church in Bristol, Ind., for the final day of my family’s reunion, which included the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of my oldest brother, David, and his wife, Kay. It also centered on the baptism of my great nephew, Bentley. I was so honored to baptize the newest member of our family that day.

Before the service, my niece told me that Bentley would laugh and smile during the entire service. “He is the happiest baby,” she said. But when I baptized him, I got water in his eyes and he cried. I could not help but think that a less clumsy priest would have kept the water out of his eyes. A more graceful priest would have encouraged his smiles and laughs. I felt a little incompetent. Yet, in spite of my shortcomings, he was completely and perfectly baptized by water and the Spirit and welcomed into the household of God.

I co-celebrated the Eucharist with the new parish priest that day. She had only been there for two weeks. The church was rather dark and I stumbled over a few words. I stumbled over words that I had said hundreds of times with no mistakes. I stumbled over the words of the Eucharist in the hearing of God and my brothers. I felt embarrassed. Yet, the bread and the wine were consecrated in spite of my shortcomings. The Holy Mystery did not depend on my perfection. It did not fail because of my imperfection.

As I offered the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, to my brothers and their families, my hands shook. I was so aware that my grandfather had served his family as priest at this very same altar rail 100 years ago. In my intense emotional state, I dropped a piece of the consecrated bread. I tried to become invisible as I stooped down to retrieve and consume it. I wondered if my grandfather ever could have been this clumsy. I felt the flush creep up my neck. Yet, everyone was fed. There was enough and some to spare. In spite of me, no one went empty away.

When we arrived back in Eureka Springs, the Naked Ladies were blooming everywhere. Those are the lilies whose foliage grows in the spring and then dies down. It seems like magic when the stalks appear this time of year with glorious pink lilies. They are sometimes called Resurrection Lilies because they appear to die and then burst forth in glorious flowering. Sometimes people are like that—sometimes full of live and sometimes faltering and appearing to fail. Then new life appears where it looked like there was none, and people bloom in new and wonderful ways.

When Jesus chose those who would build and lead and be his church, he didn’t seek out the ones who would be considered perfect candidates. Just look at the disciples. They are a bunch of young, inexperienced, uneducated, unsophisticated and imperfect people. And when we consider Simon Peter, we can add impulsive, inconsistent and bumbling to the description. It is almost as if they became the founders and leaders of the church in spite of themselves. Their power and influence was certainly bigger than they were. They were all a bunch of late bloomers.

Let’s look again at the events in today’s gospel …

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Jesus asked them. Now this question seemed a lot easier than some of the questions he had been asking the disciples. Besides, it’s often easier to say what someone else is saying than to risk revealing our own thoughts. The disciples were privy to the gossip of the day; they had heard people speculating about this question. So it was pretty easy to answer. One of them spoke up: “John the Baptist.” Another stepped up and said, “Elijah.” Then another one said, “Jeremiah.” Others bravely named important prophets. Then there was silence. It was obvious they hadn’t come up with the right answer. Jesus just looked at them. The silence was deafening.

Then Jesus asked a much more difficult question. “But who do you say that I am?” Well, they looked up at the sky. They looked down at their feet. They squirmed a little bit. It was very quiet. Then Simon—being Simon—couldn’t stand the silence. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” he blurted out. And Jesus praised him because he didn’t parrot an answer that he had heard from the gossip of the day. Simon answered him from the depths of his heart. He didn’t qualify his answer nor did he quote from some “important” person. He just looked into his heart and he responded honestly from that depth. His answer was empowered by the Holy Spirit. It was so much more than Simon could have imagined. In spite of himself, he got it right.

Jesus was overjoyed. Finally, someone really understood. And he said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It must have been a glorious moment for Simon—now called Peter. The stumbling, bumbling, couldn’t-walk-on-water Peter finally got something right. I wish I could tell you that he was immediately transformed, that he grew up in that instant, that he immediately became a rock and the foundation of the church. I wish I could tell you that he no longer acted impulsively, no longer asked dumb questions nor came up with snap answers that were not the right ones. But little pebbles don’t become large rocks overnight. He probably never got the knack of walking on water and we know he betrayed Jesus.

But in spite of himself he became more than he was.

Last Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, 11 women from the correctional facility, which is a few blocks from the church, were baptized. Their ugly yellow prison uniforms seemed to become white robes in those mystical moments. Their sins were forgiven—washed away—and they were baptized totally and completely by water and the Holy Spirit as they were welcomed into the household of God. Nothing they did or did not do had any effect on that Holy Mystery. At the end of the afternoon, they had to leave that beautiful place at St. Paul’s to go back to prison. Yet in spite of anything they had done and any debt they still had to pay, God was with them. He walked back into that prison with each of them. By God’s grace they are good enough.

You and I and Peter and those 11 women are good enough. We are part of something bigger. It is that relationship that built and builds the church—not any accomplishments nor virtues nor lack thereof on our parts that makes that happen.

God used Peter, in spite of his shortcomings to be the founder of our church. He uses each of us, in spite of our inconsistent human natures to continue that work.

Sometimes I say things I wish I could take back. Sometimes I do things I regret. Sometimes I wish I had said something when I didn’t. Sometimes I wish I had taken an opportunity to do something that I didn’t do. Sometimes I waste precious time beating up on myself about things done and left undone. Sometimes I feel very much like a female version of Peter with good intentions but very inadequate execution.

But, spite of our imperfections—yours and mine—and our falls when we try to walk on water, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and allows us to be more than we can ever be on our own. We are the church; by God’s grace, we are good enough.