Think of South Dakota and one thinks of Mount Rushmore. Carved into the mountainside are the heads of some of the great leaders of the United States. It's ironic that this monument is in the heart of an area sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people whose ancestors possessed the land centuries before George Washington's family, for instance, came to America.
Thousands of Americans visit Mount Rushmore each year. Many come away with tee shirts reading, "God Bless America," small flags, and other patriotic symbols. Perhaps they feel a rush of pride and make resolutions to be better Americans in the future.
The famous writer Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." He wasn't saying that patriotism is wrong. He might have also have said, "the church is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Just as many people seek to hide behind the cross as others do around the flag. It's a good exercise to ask the question, "Who do people say I am?" Is my religious life an attempt to be recognized, to hold power, or to cover up my "past" -- or am I living into the faith?
The writer of the part of Isaiah we heard read this morning speaks to all this in these words:
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
Many of the lessons during the past few weeks have spoken of the tension that exists between what the Bible often calls "the world" and the Christian community. It is not easy for us to understand the radical nature of Jesus' claims.
"Who do people say the Son of Man is?" asks Jesus in St. Matthew's version of the story. As we read these words we are rather like people who read the last chapter of a book before starting at the beginning. We are so familiar with the ending that we can use words like Christ, Messiah, Lord, without a second thought. It's easy to say "Jesus Christ" after we hit our fingernail with a hammer, or repeat it offhandedly in the same way as we might say, "Fred Smith."
The story about Jesus asking his disciples the loaded question, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" is set in the far northwest part of the Holy Land. It was an area where Jews mixed with Gentiles and where Roman rule was immediate and not exercised through local Herodian kings. Peter's revolutionary answer challenged not only the religious establishment but also the power of Caesar. Jesus replied:
"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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
This famous passage has been used in many ways. It is a pity that all too often it has served as a "proof text" to justify exactly the sort of power Jesus opposed. The power Jesus claims and gives to his followers has nothing to do with force, coercion, dominance, or "control."
Just before his Ascension, Jesus gave his followers a number of instructions. He told them that they would receive power -- same word as dynamite -- to be witnesses. A witness is literally a life-giver. Power to give one's life doesn't sound like the power we are used to. Power is used to command, to control, to "get things done." The rock of Simon Peter's faith, the rock from which we are all hewn, is the extraordinary idea that God loves wildly and extravagantly and that God forgives with the same generosity. The key to the kingdom is the authority to say, "God has forgiven you," and to say to those who use power to hurt others, "Go to hell!"
Jesus knew the risk of telling about this sort of "power." There are plenty around who want to keep people in their place; keep people down. "What's the use of being respectable, upright, responsible, and thrifty," these people might say, "if the church is open to the riff raff?" Empowering the poor threatens the authority of those "born to rule." When we slide into such attitudes we forget that we are part of the rock. Jesus didn't tell Peter and the disciples to form some kind of "pure" cult for respectable folk. He told them that the rock of faith, the key to the kingdom, is the simple message we are all empowered to proclaim and share. God loves us, liberates us, forgives us, and gives us a new "self-image." We are now granite, hewn from the Rock, radiant faces on the kingdom's Mount Rushmore, symbols and pictures of empowered living. This message is more powerful than all the armies and weapons in the arsenals of the powerful. You have been trusted with "the greatest story ever told," now made alive in your own experience.