I used to have a game called “True Colors.” It consists of a set of questions, and voting boxes. Questions were something like, “Who is most likely to talk their way out of a speeding ticket?” or “Who makes their bed every day?” Each player is assigned a color, and then the players vote on who among them best fits the description. The scoring of the game required players to assess each question and determine if they would get “all”, “some,” or “none” of the votes on that question. Thus, the game existed to answer the advertised question, “Do you see yourself as others see you?”
Jesus’ questions in the gospel lesson today made me think of that game. He asks two questions: Who do THEY say that that I am and Who do YOU say that I am, but the gospel writer seems to use them to introduce the questions “Who did Jesus think that he was?” and “Who did God think that Jesus was?”
The game True Colors, doesn’t really do what it says. It CLAIMS to ask “Do you see yourself as others see you?” But it really asks, “Do you know how others see you?” or “Do your self-judgments fit other people’s judgments of you?” The answer is often, “no.”
I once heard a story of a woman who saw herself very differently than others saw her:
“An Asian traveller to Iceland joined a night-long search operation for herself after she failed to recognize her own description in details of a “missing woman”.
The woman was declared missing from a party touring the Eldgja volcanic region in south Iceland after getting off the party’s bus to freshen up, the Daily Mail reported.
She hopped off the bus briefly, but had also changed her clothes — and her fellow travellers did not recognise her when she climbed back on again to continue the party’s journey. Soon the search began for a woman described as Asian, around 160 cm, in dark clothing and speaking English well. When the details of the missing person were issued, the woman reportedly didn’t recognise her own description and unwittingly joined the search party for herself.
After a night-long operation involving around 50 people, the “missing woman” eventually realised she was the source of the search and informed the police. The search began on Saturday, but was called off at around 3 am (local time) on Sunday morning when the woman realised she was the subject of the frantic efforts.”
This woman did not know how the others on her tour bus saw her. Quite possibly, the others the on the tour bus didn’t really see her, if a change of clothing was that confusing for them.
For some of us, it is easy to be pulled into spending all our time worrying about how others see us and it is easy connect our self-worth with how others judge us. If we were to ask the questions that Jesus asked, “Who do they say that I am?” and “Who do YOU say that I am?,” life could get really difficult. It happens naturally enough. Positive judgments from others feel good – at least at first. Negative judgments from others feel bad – at least at first. Most human language is laced with judgment, and it has powerful effects on our understandings of ourselves. To make things even more challenging, not all judgments come from the outside. Many of the most powerful ones are self-judgments, and they are often HARSH.
Judgments are so pervasive that they’re sometimes hard to identify. Studies of people texting while driving have established that there is a reason people do it! Namely, there is little, tiny rush of endorphins that comes every time we get a text message or a response on social media, and the rush of endorphins can become addicting. The endorphins (good feeling hormones) indicate, to me, that most of us interpret texts or social media responses as a sort of praise – someone cares enough to respond to us! And we’re so hungry for praise, which is positive judgment, that we seek it out – as a whole culture.
James seems to obsess over judgments. He says he is talking about the power of words, and he is, but it seems a little bit bigger than that. Our tongues are as powerful as the rudder of a ship, or the campfire that starts a forest fire, he claims. But then he gets all flustered that blessings and curses can come out of the same please. He says, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:10) but the even better part is when he objects to the whole idea of cursing, saying that with our tongues “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9) First of all, he has a great point. Much 1 John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Since all of creation is created by God, or at perhaps all of creation is IN God, to curse anyone or anything is to curse God.
Now, I proposed a few weeks ago a new definition of blessing, a blessing is anything that is being used for building up the kin-dom. I wonder what that does in this passage, when James talk about speaking a blessing! Would that mean that he’s talking about words that are useful for building up the kin-dom? I suspect so. And then curses word be words that keep the kin-dom from being build up! The reason I suggested that James is more upset about judgments than just about words, is that I think the thoughts we have and the judgments contained in them can do as much damage within us as the words spoken out-loud can do damage to others.
Blessings and curses may not even sound much like we’d expect them to. Some curses may be couched in flowery praise language, but be used to manipulate someone to do something not good for them! Blessings may come out in hesitant, halting language, seeking to name a truth a person has to share without even a mention of good things to come!
In any case, James is on target with the power of language, and how it impacts both the speakers and the hearers. The ways we use language, and the goals we use it for, form us and our communities.
Given all that, the questions Jesus asked strike me as dangerous! He was ASKING for judgment. Different people judged him differently. The answers the disciples gave were very different. He was told that some people thought he was john the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets, and yet another group said he was the Messiah – the one they’d all been waiting for. That seems to be the answer he was looking for, or at least the answer the Gospel writer wanted placed in people’s minds. We aren’t told how Jesus understood himself, nor why he wanted to know what people were saying. The text seems to suggest that while the Messiah that the people expected was to be the new King of Israel, the Messiah they got was one who would be killed for that very claim.
Rev. Monty Brown, a United Methodist from West Virginia has answered the most important of the questions for all of us, Jesus included I’d say. Who does God think that I am? God thinks that I am a “beloved child of God, precious and beautiful to behold.” Who does God think that you are? God thinks that you are “beloved child of God, precious and beautiful to behold.”2
Unlike the roller coaster of other people’s judgment, this God based identity is steady, sturdy, and consistent. What does it mean to be beloved of God? A friend of mine says that to love someone is to acknowledge that your well-being is intertwined with theirs. To love someone is to acknowledge that your well-being is intertwined with theirs. That is to say that their happiness brings you joy and your sadness brings them sorrow…. that it is hard for you to be fully happy if they are sad. It seems like a very good description of what love looks like.
And not just on the human level. What does it mean to be beloved of God? It means that God’s well-being is intertwined with ours…. when we hurt God hurts with us and when we celebrate, God is filled with joy.
Now, if we ponder that for a moment, and we consider what it means to love God… God intertwines us with everyone else, at least a little bit. When we say we love God, it means that our well-being is intertwined with God’s well being – which is intertwined with everyone else’s well being! God does best when things happen that are a net good for all people, and God is most hurt when deep harm is done. Maybe that’s why it actually feels bad to get revenge, or to hurt another person – because if we listen well, we hear the ways it hurts us too. And maybe that’s why the best feelings in life tend to come when we’re able to help another person – because we get a bit of the joy back.
Now, being a beloved child of God, precious and beautiful to behold is our fundamental identity – all of us. But if you notice, that doesn’t mean everything will go well. Right after the conversation about who Jesus was, he talked with his followers about what kind of trouble that was going to cause in his life. That’s another place that the power of language is visible. Peter offers him advice: be smart, save yourself! And Jesus must be tempted, because he responds, “Get behind me, temptation.” Putting to words something Jesus wanted anyway made it harder for him to turn it down. The words Peter spoke were powerful and tempting. Many words are. There is a lot be said for taking words (even words that aren’t spoken, words that stay thoughts) very seriously. When we are at our best, we can take the judgments of our thoughts, our words, and our world, and examine them for the nuggets of wisdom within.
That’s one of the coolest things I’ve learned this summer studying non-violent communication. Judgments have nuggets of goodness in them, showing us what we need and what we want and thereby helping us get there. Peter’s judgmental rebuke of Jesus contained within it the nugget of joy in his connection to Jesus and wonder at his teaching a desire to have his meaningful life continue. Jesus’ responsive rebuke of Peter revealed his shared desire to continue his life and ministry, and his commitment to being authentic. He knew others were out to get him, but he refused to change the way he acted out love in the world. Listening to the values people have in stories makes the stories much richer.
Listening the needs and values we have in judgments can take the sting out, and leave life enriched. May our powerful words be used to tempt ourselves, each other, and those we meet into enriched lives. Amen
1http://www.deccanherald.com/content/275838/tourist-joins-search-self-missing.html Accessed September 12, 2015.
2 Monty Brown, Free Us For Joyful Obedience: A Primer on Pastoral Caregiving from a Pastor’s Heart (AuthorHouse, Bloomington IN: 2006) Location 680 in Kindle edition.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
September 6, 2015