This sermon is, in part, a tribute to Dr. Gail R. O’Day, one of the most influential professors of my seminary career. The title is a nod towards one of her book titles, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (Chalice Press, 2002).
The New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” is a human interest section that details the trials, heartbreak, and joy of life in New York City. It’s like a verbal version of the social media photo series “Humans of New York,” highlighting individual humans and the beauty and pain of their stories in New York’s constant streams of anonymous faces.
One recent rendition of Metropolitan Diary, entitled, “Parking Lesson,” went like this.
I pulled onto West 130th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues looking for a parking spot. I noticed one between two cars. I knew there wasn’t a fire hydrant there.
Getting into the spot would have been a tight squeeze, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Luckily, though, I saw that there was a man sitting in the Jeep parked in front of the empty space. He had easily half a car’s length ahead of him that he could move up into. I figured I would ask if he would mind making my job easier.
Pulling alongside the Jeep, I saw that the man was leaning back in his seat. His window was already down. I rolled down my front passenger side window.
‘Hi, excuse me.’ I said, ‘Would you mind pulling up a bit so I could squeeze in behind you?’
‘Excuse me, sir?’
This time, he answered.
‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to ask if you could move up a tad, maybe three feet.’
‘I heard what you said,’ he said. ‘I’ll move up two feet, and learn how to park.’
Now I was annoyed.
He pulled the Jeep up, and I backed into the empty spot easily. Turning off the ignition, I decided to ask the man if he would evaluate my parking job. After all, he had said I needed to learn.
As I approached the Jeep, the man was reaching out the window with his hand open. Almost magnetically, my hand was drawn into his.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m on the phone with the funeral home. My father just passed. Please, go easy on me.’
It doesn’t take much to set us off when we’re surrounded by millions of people, especially in the heat. So go easy on each other.” (1)
He just laid it out there, that man in the Jeep. His bluntness about his situation saved both people from a confrontation.
I know that I’m meant to identify with the man who needed to park, and that the lesson I’m meant to take is to go easy on my fellow human because I have no idea what they’re going through. That is a good lesson indeed.
However, what’s truly remarkable to me about this story is the directness and vulnerability of the guy in the Jeep. It took courage to do what he did — to reach out, literally, and be direct about his own pain. To put himself on the line rather than hide, roll up the window, or start a fight. The writer wouldn’t have been able to go easy on the man in the Jeep had he not disclosed his pain and thrown himself at the mercy of an angry stranger: “I’m on the phone with the funeral home…. Please, go easy on me.”
The Gospel lesson this morning is known for two things: Peter’s direct confession of Jesus as the Christ and for Peter’s royal screwup two verses later. When he goes from getting it right to getting it so wrong that the Son of God calls him “Satan.”
Jesus does what seems like a strange thing in Mark — nearly every time he does something extraordinary, or every time someone knows who he is, he shushes them immediately. Scholars and theologians have debated why for centuries, but narratively it’s always made a lot of sense to me: Jesus knows, not because he’s omnipotent, but because he’s alive and conscious, that his miraculous actions and his believers’ claims about him are going to get him into trouble on more than one front. He will eventually throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, which is part of what Peter objects to.
We’re not there yet, though.
No, this time, it’s Peter that makes the bold disclosure. Whenever we’re trying to be direct and tell the truth about anything, especially our own convictions, saying, “This is the whole truth as best I know it” takes courage.
You see, the gathering here in Mark 8 is more intimate than the familiar setting might suggest. Jesus is walking on the road with his disciples. If you’ve done all that much Bible reading at all, at this point, your eyes might start to glaze. “Yeah, yeah — we know. He’s, like, teaching them, right? Imparting the truth on them or something. Profound, neighbor-loving stuff.” That colors how we hear the rest, if we hear it at all.
It seems that this is a sort of impersonal exchange wherein Peter boldy and in a direct and no B.S. fashion gets Jesus’ Sunday school question right.
I suppose that’s how it is — if you forget that this is a story involving humans.
Much has been said over the years about the car as a place where it’s sometimes easier to have hard conversations. You don’t have to look directly at the person — in fact, if you or the other person is driving, it’s impossible (and unsafe) to maintain long eye contact. An early 2000s emo band was even named after the phenomenon: Dashboard Confessional.
I imagine that this phenomenon of having hard conversations while traveling didn’t start with cars. It applies to travel more generally too — including walking. Anytime you’re moving and facing forward, you have an easy excuse to look elsewhere, easing up the emotional pressure brought on by facing someone.
So Jesus and his disciples are walking, presumably facing forward, and he asks a rather vulnerable question: “Who do people say that I am?”
“What do people think of me, really? Who do they think I am? What do they think I’m here for?”
So the disciples give him a laundry list of the things they’ve heard. Disciple next to Jesus kicks up a little dust with his feet and answers, “Some say John the Baptist.” Disciple in the back says, “Other people are saying you’re Elijah.” Another chimes in, “Or one of the other prophets.”
Then Jesus drills in with an even more intimate question: “Who do you say that I am?”
“You’ve been following me for awhile now. Why do you think you’re here? Who am I to you?”
They are about to tell Jesus how they’ve viewed all the time they’ve spent together. They’ve been following him, eating together, laughing together, seeing miracles together. And Jesus has essentially just said, with all their eyes fixed forward, “What has all that meant to you? Who do you think I am?”
What’s more, you see, no one in the group has ever said it out loud.
Peter comes right out with it: “You’re the Messiah.”
It’s not a term that encompasses everything. But it says a lot. And he just came right out with it.
I’ve always appreciated the directness of your average New Englander. I’m no regional essentialist or anything, but my experience with Southerners is that we tend to tell more stories, use more niceties, and beat around the bush a bit more. Our primary goal is often to protect the feelings of others and maintain social norms. New Englanders, I find, often give “just the facts,” preferably without sugarcoating it.
“You’re the Messiah.”
Many Southerners read this kind of demeanor as cold. Thanks to one person in particular, I read it now as more efficient — and brave — than anything.
I’m fairly sure that the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day was the first person from this region that I ever interacted with on a daily basis. She was the academic dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory in Atlanta for my first two years of seminary. I also had the pleasure of taking several of her courses on preaching and on the Gospel of John. There are, as I’ve said before, classes that make us all better at our jobs, and then there are those that make us better people. Seminary is no different, though I can also count a third category there: there were courses that made me realize that I actually believe this stuff, courses that formed my actual faith and gave me words to describe it. Gail’s courses were among those. In my own preaching voice, I hear echoes of her own, and when I hear someone from my era at Candler preach, I can often tell if they were among her students, too.
I found that she has a keen eye for finding depth and meaning and little patience for showing off in trying to convey it. Just get to the point. She also taught me to get past my assumptions in reading a Gospel story, often asking, “Yes, but what does the text say?” We were allowed to imagine and fill in the details, but we had to be faithful to the text. We had to tell the truth as best we knew it.
Once, while standing with a group of my friends as she passed by, I remarked of a paper I had just turned in to her: “I feel like it went somewhere; I’m sorry for my intro, though — it was kinda fluff.” Deadpan, her blue eyes fixed on me and she said, “I know.” My friends let out a low “oooh,” but by that point, I felt the love. I think I made a B.
From watching her, I learned to really look at the people to whom I was preaching, even when I was nervous or afraid. From her, I learned to look at individuals in the congregation in a way that says, “This is the truth as best I know it.”
I’ve been thinking about her, and about preaching, life, and resurrection more generally, because she’s been pretty sick lately.
Some scholars and theologians and spiritual leaders appeal to our emotions with flowery words including lots of adjectives. With Gail, it was just the facts, and I often found myself feeling things in spite of myself. Because something else was also true: she really believes this stuff. To me, she was a scholarly giant. And if she could believe this stuff, then maybe I could, too.
Peter took a risk in proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, and I wonder if it didn’t have a profound effect on the faith of his fellow disciples. Because if Peter can believe it, well, maybe it is real after all.
Yes, moments later Peter’s boldness will go to his head and he’ll say too much. Peter lacked New England discernment to go along with his bluntness. He underestimated the vulnerability and openness that the Messiah would have to endure — the cross. He misunderstood that it was ultimately Jesus who’d have to lay himself at the mercy of strangers, die, and rise again.
Still, Jesus calls us to open our arms, to be vulnerable, to lay it all out there: in short, to take up our cross and follow. Tell the truth as best you know it. God will be there.
After the Orlando shooting in 2016, Gail wrote these words with which I close, which echo ever more true to me now. It was the truth as she knew it: “…the struggle between life and death, love and hate is the struggle of human existence. We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power. And we are called to be witnesses to the love of God that cannot be overcome by hatred and that will carry us all forward in hope toward a justice-filled future. We lament, we mourn, we will seek justice, and we will love. With prayers and hope for a new day, Gail R. O’Day.”
It takes courage to tell the truth as you know it: about your own soul, about the state of things, about the existence of hope when nothing is hopeful.
But you’re New Englanders. Just lay it out there, because we really believe this stuff — about life and death and resurrection.
“We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power.” So keep laying it out there. God will be there when you do.
Because if you can believe and proclaim it, you just might give someone else the courage to believe it too. That is why we are here: full disclosure. Amen.