Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20
In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world. Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that. It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door. I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street. I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs. It’s the way of life in this stretch of road. It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood. All I can think is, aren’t we better than this? Aren’t we better than all of this?
You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this? It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this. It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this. It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise. None of us can really escape it. It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out. More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well. In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.
It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah. Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people. Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it. God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim. As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way. We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly. God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family. From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power. As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.
Then there’s Peter. He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord. Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on. Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel. He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity. Notice that Jesus asks two questions. First he asks what the crowds have to say about him. What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd? They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist. But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’. It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them. It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way. At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city. At the core we are all the same. When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there. The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are. But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe. In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.
If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than. But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity. All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing. There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that. Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally. Then learn to let it go. Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society. It’s humbling. It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself. There is always hope. If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters. The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.