SERMON Lectionary 21a 2017
Confession of Peter/OUR TOWN
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
Our gospel today, the story of Peter’s confession, for some reason reminds me of a beautiful moment in Thornton Wilder’s play OUR TOWN, in which a young girl, Rebecca, tells her brother George about a letter a friend of hers received from her minister. At that moment, at the end of the first act, they are gazing at the full moon. This is how the passage goes:
Rebecca: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: it said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners, Sutton County; New Hampshire, United States of America.
George: What’s funny about that?
Rebecca: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America, Continent of North America, Western Hemisphere; the earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope.
George: What do you know!
Rebecca: And the postman brought it just the same.
OUR TOWN is one of the greatest of great plays.. In it, the daily life of ordinary people has been framed by eternity, and even the boundaries between the living and the dead have dissolved. The circle of life is unbroken, from Grover’s Corners to the Mind of God. So the characters in OUR TOWN discover that there little home is a very large place, indeed.
Something like that happens today in the gospel, when Peter discovers in his own heart that God is hiding in the man walking with him, his drinking buddy and bosom friend. He realizes suddenly that Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s beloved Son, and says so, out loud, for the first time. It is a breathtaking moment that lifted them from a little town on the slopes of Mount Hermon 2000 years ago into the Mind of God.
We are here today to be lifted as Peter was, to discover God hiding in our lives, in the ordinary, distracting business of managing our lives as best we may. We are here to discover another place that is somehow also this place: another home where cares dissolve, sorrow and sighing flee away, and universal, healing love is all there is: the Mind of God.
The wonderful point of OUR TOWN is exactly the point of the gospel: whether we know it or not, we live and move and have our being in the Mind of God now, right now. We do not have to ascend to some ethereal dimension of mystic moonlight and disembodied bliss to know God. God hides in the tasks and chores of everyday life, in the familiar faces around us, in the opportunities we have and the choices we make. God is closer to us than our own hands and feet; God is hiding in the breath we are taking right now.
Does that sound strange, to speak of a “hiding” God? Actually, scripture is full of such speaking. In Exodus 33, for instance, God hides from Moses by allowing him only a glimpse of his backside as he passes. The Psalms and the Prophets constantly ask questions like, “Why, O God, do you hide your face from your people?” And, as a teacher, Jesus deliberately hides God in his parables, requiring people to discover God in them for themselves. Our God is a hidden God.
Most importantly, God hides in Jesus, as Peter discovers this morning: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Like all faith, like all truth, it was something Peter had to discover for himself with God’s help. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father in Heaven.” Peter discovers God hiding in Jesus. Luther teaches this firmly: “God hid in the despised man, Christ.” Luther even invented a term for this hidden God, Deus absconditis.
For Luther, God’s ultimate hiding place is the cross, in that deadly swamp of evil and suffering. Through the lens of the cross, we can see God hiding in our own suffering and the suffering of our world. God is hidden today in the suffering in Syria and Yemen and South Texas. God is hidden, and God is very near.
Peter “outs” Jesus as God’s son this morning, and Jesus seems glad of it. But he also sternly orders the disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah. For the time being, he wants to remain hidden in the humble teacher and healer the world knows as Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s different now, of course, here on the other side of the cross and the resurrection. We, God’s church, proclaim Christ from the housetops, we seek him and preach him and sing about him and celebrate him. We advertise him! Nevertheless, for the whole business to be more than a fractured fairy tale, we still have to discover him, to find him ourselves inside our lives and hearts and relationships.
God is hiding in us today as God hid on the cross – inside our happiness, certainly, though happiness can be distracting – but also inside our fear, our anxiety, inside our need. There, God waits anxiously for us to find him. So, if you are hungry to know God, face your fears, acknowledge your need. Look at what is on your heart right now. The God who hid on the cross in his despised and suffering Son will come to meet you where you are. God doesn’t have far to go; God is already closer than our own hands and feet.
In OUR TOWN, the wonderful girl whom George marries, his neighbor Emily Webb, dies young. But she is restless in the cemetery and, unwilling to be dead, goes back to Grover’s Corners to live her twelfth birthday over again. It only lasts a couple of minutes. There is too much beauty, too much joy, too much love hiding in that day. It’s hiding, and 12-year-old Emily realizes as she relives her day that nobody knows it’s there. In the scene, Emily begs her mother (who, of course, doesn’t hear her):
EMILY: O Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!
And then she says to the Stage Manager, the Narrator of the play:
EMILY…. I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on and we never noticed … O earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
Well, saints: Emily’s question is really our question. Do we realize that God is hiding in our lives, our hearts, our relationships, our sufferings, our joys? Right here, right now? Can we, gathered today as God’s church, knowing what we know as Christians … can we recognize God hiding in a wafer and a sip of wine, as Jesus taught us to do?
Let us pray that as our lives unfold we discover our hidden, hiding God all around us and inside us and in those who share our lives with us, and to confess with Peter the beautiful Savior who opens to us the Mind of God.
Let us pray.