Friday, September 11, 2015

Who Do We Say Jesus Is? Reflections on 9/11 and Defining Questions for a Generation in Angst

There are particular moments that define a generation. For our generation, September 11th was that defining moment. We remember where we were. We remember where our loved ones were.  We remember the sense of paralysis as we saw images of two towers bellowing smoke eventually crumble on live television.  We remember the tears, the fears, and the immediate uncertainty about anything and everything. 

We knew life would never again be the same. 

September 11th reminded us no people, culture, nation, or religious community is immune to tragedy, loss, and infringements on our safety and security. 

September 11th birthed an increase in nationalistic zeal, which many call patriotism. 

September 11th planted fertile seeds for new wars hell bent on ending terrorism. 

September 11th fostered a rise in racial-ethnic profiling, deeming suspicious persons whose heritage and complexion originates from a particular part of the world.

September 11th also unified a people around phrases symbolic of a longing for freedom and justice for all…at least all of "us."

"Let’s roll."

"Never forget."

September 11th also hallowed grounds in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington. D.C.  Monuments have been constructed and annual memorial services are hosted as means to ensure we indeed never forget what took place that Tuesday morning 14 years ago. 

And as I think back to September 11th, 2001, I also remember September 16th.  

On the first Sunday after the attacks, there was doubtful to have been a single empty sanctuary.  Churches were packed as many, even the most cynical citizens, crammed into pews looking for hope, healing, comfort, and a sense of community as we wrestled with all that had transpired only a few days earlier.  

And I wonder, what was preached? How was the biblical story illustrated? How did preachers respond to spoken and unspoken questions sure to be shared by congregants and visitors alike? 

Who did the church say Jesus was in light of the tragic events of September 11, 2001? Who do we say Jesus is fourteen years later? 

This Sunday’s lectionary text nudges us to ask that very question:
"Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?'  And they answered him, 'John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Messiah.' And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30)
Caesarea Philippi was the northernmost edge of ancient Palestine and under Roman control. In this Hellenistic city, monuments and memorials were everywhere. Familiar symbols, well known to the readers of Mark’s gospel, littered the landscape and underscored the socio-political narrative of the day. Temples were constructed and political leaders immortalized as gods.  No doubt, many saw these symbols and also thought of the pain caused by the very people and events they represented. They didn't forget.

It was in these villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus dared to ask his most poignant questions:

“Who do people say that I am?….Who do you say that I am?"

After Messianic declarations by Jesus’ disciples, the prophetic Son of God began to “teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” (Mk 8:31).

Jesus pointed the faithful (and often faithless) towards suffering. Unlike those manifested throughout the empire, Jesus identified with those who suffered and laid in the wake of oppression and injustice.  Jesus, much to the chagrin of Peter, invited them to do and be the same, "Get behind me..."

Nearly two millennia later, Jesus’ questions still linger and challenge those of us who would like to identify ourselves as disciples.  Whether in the shadows of Roman temples and oppressive emperors, collapsed towers by way of modern terror, or political propaganda set up on social media and cable news networks, these questions are still our questions.  Who do the people say Jesus is? Who do we say Jesus is?

In light of Syrian refugees fleeing genocide and civil war, whose children wash up on neighboring shores, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of movements like #blacklivesmatter, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of increased gun violence and shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters, and on the site of live news broadcasts, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of debates about marriage equality, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of pervasive poverty in cities and communities near and far, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of presidential candidates who profess a particular brand of faith, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of immigration and threats of deportation by political campaigners, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of negotiations with foreign powers and beholders of nuclear weapons, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of broken education systems that create pipelines to even more broken prison systems, who do we say Jesus is?  

In light of September 11th, who do we say Jesus is? 

Our response to these questions must not be taken lightly. These are defining questions for our generation.  Our responses to these questions will determine whether we truly have heard Jesus’ call to get behind him and follow as disciples who identify with the suffering among, around, and beyond us. After all, we are called to carry our cross as those who work for the liberty and justice of those marginalized by us all. 

This, too, we must never forget.