The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
Ah, fall in New York.
The crispness in the air. The leaves changing color. The pumpkin spice lattes flowing like a river from taps at Starbucks. The bustle and energy as the city recovers from the humid August haze.
But nothing says fall in New York like a strange man on the corner confidently striding up to me and asking, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
The high holy days are upon us; L’shanah tovah to our Jewish friends and congregation members.
I have to admit, when I first moved to New York 15 years ago, having a random stranger interrupt me and ask if I was Jewish was jarring and confusing. I felt a little accosted, and a little self-conscious – like, was I being profiled somehow? But as I came to understand why this custom exists and the importance of the holidays it is attached to, I started to marvel at it.
I marvel at the conviction that it takes to ask every stranger who passes you on the street, about their faith and be rejected and even derided and cursed, over and over and over again, and I admire their perseverance to do so because there might just be that one person who tells you they’re Jewish but haven’t yet heard the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, one person who will take Sabbath candles home with them, one person who accepts the mitzvah and begins their new year as God intended.
I mean, could you imagine standing out on the street all day on Good Friday, so concerned about the Christian faith losing its meaning in an increasingly secular world, believing in your bones that even though it’s a weekday and a work/school day, there is nothing more important than for every potential Christian to venerate the cross, confess their sins, and receive the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, hoping to get a bible, a baptismal candle, maybe a cross into their hands, with the hope that they will choose to be baptized at the Easter Vigil and embrace the truth of Jesus’ resurrection — to the point that you are compelled to spend the day asking every single passer-by, “Excuse me, are you Christian?”
Show of hands for those of you here in the sanctuary, and put it in the chat box if you’re at home – for how many of you would this be a hard pass?
Same show of hands – for how many of you does your faith personally matter to you?
It’s funny, isn’t it? How our faith could be so deeply important to us, but at the same time, something we could be so deeply hesitant about sharing with other people.
Now, don’t get me wrong — there is no way you’d find me on a street corner asking thousands of strangers, “excuse me, are you Christian?” No. Way.
But if I’m going to admit this is a hard pass for me, I also have to ask myself— why? What is it about the name of Jesus and the title of Christian that I’m hesitant to share?
All of our Scripture readings today have one thing in common: they talk about teaching. Isaiah begins with the proclamation, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.” James begins with an admonition “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus began to teach his disciples some really difficult things, and it didn’t go over so well. Perhaps this is an appropriate set of readings for the start of the school year.
But there is a thread that binds them together that’s deeper and more important, and it is one simple truth: what we say matters.
Isaiah is given the tongue of a teacher for a purpose: to sustain the weary with a word. James warns teachers about their responsibility by talking about the tongue: that tiny part of our body that carries immense power. James reminds us that the things that come out of our mouths carry great weight, and should not be contradictory.
It’s likely that most of us are familiar with the phrase “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Perhaps your parents taught it to you if you were being bullied at school, or by one of the neighborhood kids. And while it’s one way to teach resiliency, it misses the mark. Words CAN hurt us. Words have the power to build up and tear down. The Great Schism of the church, separating East and West, was (in part) a disagreement over one word. Chances are, every single one of you has said something at least once in your life that you regret, whether intentionally or not. And, it’s also just as likely every single one of us has said something to somebody that made their day, lifted them up, made a difference. Our words matter, and they have power. The prophets and apostles knew this. Jesus knew it. And Jesus’ teaching comes down to one simple question: Who do you say that I am?
What we say matters. And who we say Jesus is matters.
There’s not a shortage of tongues in our public discourse saying who they think Jesus is. Sadly, many of the loudest ones give the person of Jesus and the religion of Christianity a bad name — aligning them with judgment, domination, and intolerance. I think what the Scriptures today call us to wrestle with is: where does your tongue come in?
Maybe it’s your tongue that can sustain the weary with a word. Maybe your voice will be the first time someone doesn’t hear the hypocrisy of both blessing and cursing flowing from the mouth of someone who calls themselves a Christian. Maybe your answer to Jesus – “who do you say that I am?” – will be an answer that bears witness to the hope and love that fill us when we abide in Jesus. Maybe the questions you have, and the doubt you struggle with, will encourage someone who has been taught that faith has no room for questions.
Now, trust me – this is not a rallying cry to begin street corner evangelism. I think the examination of who we say Jesus is runs much deeper. James warns about mouths that speak both blessing and cursing. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” But the reason the grand NYC fall tradition of “excuse me, are you Jewish?” exists is because the Jewish community saw that the opposite can also become true: we can easily bless our neighbor, and have absolutely no care for God.
I know that public discourse around Christianity more often than not has us apologizing for Christianity rather than proclaiming it proudly. And I’m not foolish enough to think that one congregation on the Upper West Side can change all that. But perhaps I am just foolish enough to think that we might let it change us. That it might embolden our tongues to answer Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” and maybe, just maybe, not keep the answer to ourselves. Who knows? maybe it could change the world.