Sermon based on Matthew 14: 22-33. When we lived in Wisconsin, we would attend the annual summer county fair. If you have never been to one, they are an interesting life experience. Not only are there livestock competitions for the best shown cow or horse, but there are the homemade baked goods and quilts all judged and awarded.
A favorite for many of course is an area termed "the midway." The Midway is the location where the carnival games, amusement rides, and fast food booths, are congregated. Most of the games are there to extract a few dollars from you of course, and that stuffed bear we win is worth less than the money we just plunked down on the counter, still, its fun to try to game the system.
One of the places you might do that is at the booth where a grizzled "carny" attempts to guess your weight and your age just by looking at you. A "carny" is an informal term used for a traveling carnival employee. It is interesting to watch this particular game, although you never want to get within eyesight because usually like Las Vegas, the house wins.
That county fair game came to mind as I read today's gospel because what if this guessing game were played with one crucial adjustment? What if the game were to be played without the person or subject being seen? How would the carny guess the age? How would the carny guess the gender? What about marital status or income?
I recently found out that it's even easier to guess these things sight unseen than it is for that greasy dude at the fair to guess our age by looking at us. All that's needed is our --- smart phones. According to what I read, look at the apps, those pieces of software that we have installed or add to our phones because from those apps we can deduce the age, gender, income level and marital status of the owner.
It seems that researchers recently cross-referenced the app usage and demographics of 3,700 people to determine how software applications and personal attributes correlated and found that they could predict a person's gender, age, marital status and income with about 70 - 80% accuracy based on what was on our phones.
To put it another way, we are what we app! Not only do our app choices say a lot about us, they also make it possible for the Internet to know us even better than our family and friends. There's a reason those advertisements pop up on our phone or computer are so creepily accurate. Our data usage reveals the real "us" in many ways.
Guessing and what can be known are two thoughts when reviewing our Gospel because not only were the crowds making guesses about Jesus they were doing so with the known data. But it seems from Jesus' question today, no consensus had developed. In an ancient world where a person's demographics involved a 3g analysis --- gender, genealogy and geography --- Jesus was an outlier. Think about the "data sets" about Jesus to this point: Jesus was born in unusual circumstances, perhaps with questionable parentage or at least seemingly with an absent "father." Jesus was from a poor family. And rather than marrying, which was also expected, Jesus remains single and unattached. And of course, instead of staying at home and continuing with the family business, Jesus has a mid to late life change and sets off as a wandering rabbi gathering an odd assortment, ragtag group of men and women. Jesus has no visible means of income, and yet is able to continue day in and day out. Jesus performs incredible miracles, but never uses his power to benefit himself. He casts out evil spirits but, at the same time, is blamed for being in league with them. Jesus appears to be a righteous person, ritually following Jewish law, but he hangs out with the dregs of society, eating and drinking with them, teaching that the Law of Moses means little if is nothing penetrates the heart. Jesus talks about eternal life, but seems to be obsessed with death.
It's little wonder that people were wondering. The game of who this man was happening quietly or in whispers took place every time he appeared in public and, in fact, even among his closest associates. I loved the way that the old Broadway show and later movie from the 1970's put it in Jesus Christ Superstar: "What's the buzz? Tell me what's a happening?"
It is with that in mind that Jesus brings the guessing out from the whispers to the open. Jesus and the disciples arrive in "the district of Caesarea Philippi" --- a fact which is significant for the dialogue that follows. You see, pagans living in the region believed that a cave near this town was the residence of the Greek god Pan, the half-man, half-goat god of fright --- from which we get the English word "panic." It was also where some believed there was an entrance to Hades --- the underworld, the realm of the dead.
The city was also significant because it was built by King Herod Philip in honor of Caesar and given the additional designation "Philippi" to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima, built by his father Herod the Great on the Mediterranean coast.
So, it seems appropriate that in a place identified with two significant rulers, a place identified with a pagan faith and a geographical place associated for death, Jesus would bring up the question of his own identity as a counterpoint. Jesus asks his disciples, "Guess?" His actual question of course was, "Who do people say that I am?"
The answers by the disciples are not those far different than the crowd's. All the guesses are connected to Old Testament prophets, even though most Jewish teachers at the time believed that authentic prophecy had ceased. Still, there was some expectation of a return of the prophets during those troubling times, particularly Elijah who had according to scripture been taken to God in a fiery chariot. For those many of us who are disassociated from our Christian Jewish roots, we are largely oblivious to many of Jesus' miracles that seemed to mirror those of Elijah --- like raising the dead being the most prominent." Then, when Jesus announced God's judgment on unrepentant cities and downplayed the central role of the temple, Jesus sounded a lot like another Old Testament prophet by the name of Jeremiah.
We also hear that some thought that John the Baptist was an Elijah figure, but when John was executed by Herod Antipas, they began to transfer that moniker to Jesus.
None of this should surprise us because the crowds linked Jesus with what they knew from the past, to the apps they were using. The people saw in his ministry as pointing to some future figure that would finally overthrow systems of injustice and oppression, introduce the kingdom of God and rescue them from exile and subjugation.
But as we know, those closest to Jesus began to suspect there was more to him than that. Jesus was more than a prophet; in fact, he was the One for whom they had been waiting. When Jesus asks his disciples the pointed question, "But who do you say that I am?" It's a question that will not only define who he is but also define the identity of his followers.
Simon Peter answers with confidence, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Simon has examined the evidence and concluded that Jesus is the real deal. While Simon gets Jesus' title, he still doesn't quite understand what it means. Like most people of his day, Simon had certain what are called Messianic expectations, not so far off from one of those media star preachers on late night television, a Messiah with fire and brimstone. Yet, the problem with expectations based on our views of the past is that they often narrow our vision, allowing us to see only that which is compatible with our vision. Clearly, the disciple's vision of "Messiah" and "Son of the Living God" is limited by what they've seen in the past.
Simon for one expected that God had promised King David that his royal descendants would be his adopted children. So, it was natural for any successor to the throne to be seen as "the Son of the living God." The Messiah --- This means "anointed one" --- would be that royal descendant. When Simon confesses Jesus' identity as Messiah and Son of God, he is actually not thinking of him as some interrelationship with God as a Trinity, but rather thinking something more like, in our own vernacular, "Jesus, I think you might be our future president."
It's clear from what follows, when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, that Simon's bold confession, while technically correct, still doesn't fit the full messianic algorithm Jesus has in mind. It will take more than the cross and resurrection of Jesus to blow everyone's mind. Still, as we said, Simon was technically right. He nails it, and Jesus tells him so. "Simon, that is awesome! You totally get it!"
This means, that in a place where Caesar is hailed as a god and the realm of death stands wide open; at a place where a pagan faith is practiced, Simon acknowledges the one person who is really worthy of worship. God revealed this to him Jesus says, and now close to these supposed gates of Hades, Jesus proclaims that it is on this confession that this community of worshipers will be built. Wherever he goes from now on, Simon, now Peter for one, will be identified by his association with the Christ.
So some 20 centuries later, what does that mean for us who are seemingly largely known by our "data sets" on our phones, or by what people guess of us as we walk by based on our age, race and gender? Sure we could show a Bible app and the latest Bible study on our smart phones! But, would we be known only by this --- in name only --- association with Jesus? And since our faith comes as grace as a gift from God, meaning in a sense if we take the Smartphone metaphor further, faith is pre-installed, what does our association by name even mean? Is it boiled down to that 19th century evangelical question "Are you saved?" coupled to the 21st century wrist band, WWJD --- What Would Jesus Do?
Well, from my experience faith is personal but it's not ever private. Even when Peter would later deny even knowing Jesus, he couldn't get away with it. Peter continued to struggle in faith because once we are associated with him; it's an identity that sticks, is day by day, within life's journey private and public. It is as the words used at baptisms; "… child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ ….forever." In an ideal world I suppose that means that anyone we meet ought to be able to tell right away we have been "marked" and meaning that includes our words, actions, compassion and way of living that we belong to Christ. No one should have to guess!
Yet we are in a process, a lifelong journey meshing this forever baptismal "mark" willing to not only to have a strengthening private faith that is shared publicly, but also trusting in this bedrock confession, one that lived to the cross and into the resurrection.
God has graced us so that you are more than just known by our apps, or what people can guess of us, we are beloved Children of God. As such let us not leave ourselves or others left guessing, or following our own self created data sets, but living into that forever mark of our baptisms. Amen.