The Rev. Bob Holum
Senator Tammy Duckworth, who walks on two fine aluminum legs, was an eager, but anxious, 22 year old when she joined the Army ROTC in 1990. Choosing helicopter service, because it was one of the few combat roles open to women, she earned not only her wings, but the chance to command her own Blackhawk air assault unit. She was shot down during an operation in Iraq, lost both her legs, and wakes every day thanking the crew members who risked their lives to save her life. But, she says, “Military service doesn’t only require sacrifice from those in uniform. It’s required from their families, too. My husband, Brian, was the one who rushed to Walter Reed after I was wounded in Iraq. He was the one holding my hand, waiting for me to wake up. And, when I finally did, he was my rock, getting me through those hours, weeks, months of unspeakable pain and unending surgeries. He was my anchor as I relearned to walk, helping me through every step and every stumble.”
Lieutenant Colonel, now Senator, Duckworth needed a rock, an anchor, to get her through the darkest time. So did Jesus, that preacher-healer from Galilee as he pressed forward into territory around Caesarea Phillipi, that ominous outpost of the Roman empire. This was putting the carpenter’s son, a working class hero, smack in the face of Caesar Augustus. hailed as a God human form - Caesar, that is - absolute ruler of the greatest all-powerful military force the world had ever known.
“What are people saying about me,” Jesus asked his closest friends, Simon Peter, James, John, Andrew, mother Mary, the others who were traveling in his motley band of the poor, the lame, the blind, the dispossessed, the healed and the hopeful, the occasional tax collector, farmer, small business person. “What’s the buzz? What sort of reputation am I getting. What do the polls say?”
“John the Baptist come back from the dead!” This great desert revival preacher had been beheaded for calling out the slimy morals of the narcissistic Roman-Jewish Kinglet, Herod. “Some say Elijah,” the renowned ancient prophet, a founding father, who had established the religion of Moses as a state religion by anointing Saul to be the first king. “Jeremiah” say others, the great moral voice, Israel’s Lincolnesque prophet who had called for reform and judgement when the line of kings had gone corrupt. “One of the other prophets” say still others, - Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the long line of healers, preachers and moral compasses who had been spokespersons for Adonai, the great God I AM across the centuries of Israel’s existence.
“But who do you say that I am?” persists Jesus, seeking identity and affirmation as he walks into the conflict zone and faces the pain he knows it will bring. Jesus is looking for a personal affirmation. Jesus is looking for a rock.
“You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God,” says Simon son of Jonah, one of the longest serving of the 12.
“Messiah/Christ” meant nationalist warrior, someone like Saul or David fighting the Philistine’s, or Joshua, who fought the battle of Jericho. The Messiah/Christ was expected to lead a massive uprising, aided by angel shock troops, to throw the Romans out of Palestine and restore the Kingdom to independent status and regained glory. “Son of the Living God” was the title given to Kings of Israel, again, a la David, who was remembered as the greatest king of all time, like Arthur, or Charlemagne, or for us sons and daughters of Norway, King Olav. Put together, “Christ, Son of the Living God,” meant “Warrior and Sovereign, Savior and King.” Ulysses S. Grant or Dwight D. Eisenhower come to mind, dominant battle veterans who also governed with distinction. Peter’s opinion of Jesus is the highest of the high. He is proclaiming Jesus, in Roman territory, to be superior to Caesar, the emperor of emperors. Peter’s words position Jesus for a confrontation with power.
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, what you have said is bigger than your own mind. What you see is a vision coming directly from the soul of the universe and from the mind of almighty God. “You are Peter! (which means “Rocky”) and on this rock I will build my hell beating death defeating church.”
We need a Rocky right now, people of God, because we are living in the face of so much hell and death: the covid plague, the hell of political polarization and environmental crisis. California and Colorado are on fire. Climate-change driven storms are firing up up in the Gulf and aiming a double barreled threat at New Orleans and the heartland. We need to be that rock-rooted, Jesus-foundationed divinely-inspired demographic cluster that can stand firm in the time of trial and prevail. Only not that Sylvester Stallone style narcissistic individualist muscle bound Rocky, we need a Dinora Chinchilla- style Rocky doing it in nonviolent militant community. We need to be a team of Rockies, a posse of Rockies, a purpose-driven Body of Christ in the world, a dying and resurrecting community of sinful saints and saintly sinners.
Who is Dinora Chinchilla? She’s a LatinX doctor of Pulmonology specializing in critical care in Los Angeles County, CA, where the virus has killed more than 5,000 people. You can hear her story archived on yesterday’s Weekend Morning Edition. ”All I saw was COVID, COVID, COVID," she said. "I didn't know Monday from a Saturday. I felt like every day was on repeat."
Many days, when the 39-year-old looked around the intensive care unit, every single patient was connected to a ventilator. Most were Latino. The group has been three times as likely to get the virus compared to whites in the U.S. Public health experts credit that to essential jobs, multi-generational homes, and higher rates of co-morbidities like diabetes.
"Seeing how disproportionately COVID has affected the Latino community and being able to be that person for them now is what I always wanted," said Chinchilla. "But that comes with a big burden."
As a kid growing up in East L.A., she dreamed of treating low-income families like hers. Bridging that barrier inspires her to work longer shifts than many of her colleagues. "It was just so emotional," Chinchilla said, fingering the inside of a large silver hoop earring. "I can't say that I didn't cry often."
The heartache didn't end at work. When Chinchilla unlocked the door to her house, her two young children would run toward her. But she had to head in the opposite direction.
"How sad is that?" she said. "Not being able to hug your child when she's so happy that you're home because you've been gone for 14 hours."
Chinchilla didn't embrace her kids until she scrubbed herself raw in a scalding shower. A recent break helped her reconnect with them, but the whole time she still felt the tug of the hospital.
"I feel that sense of duty," she said. "This is my specialty. This is what I signed up for. I have to be there." BUT That conviction can be hard to maintain when she sees the public ignoring simple protocols, like wearing a mask: “It’s hard to keep giving if it doesn’t feel like we are all in this together. If you guys would just step into the ICU for five minutes and just see what I see, experience what I experience, I have no doubt that people would be more mindful.”
“It’s hard to keep giving if it doesn’t feel like we are all in this together.”
For Dr. Chinchilla, her kids and her Latin community are the Rock, as Peter was for Jesus, her husband Brian is for Senator Duckworth, but, for Jesus, and for all hell-defying sinful saints, a personal rock is not enough.
You need a person to be that rock, but that personal connection also needs to be embedded in community. “You are Petros - the Rock - and on this rock I will build my ecclesia - my church, my community of the loving, forgiving purpose driven, justice-seeking sinful saints.”
Her husband Brian was essential but not sufficient, so Colonel Duckworth plunged into the Veterans movement and then into politics. Finding a community of purpose. Dr. Chinchilla’s kids and ethnic heritage are essential, but not sufficient, so she calls on the broader community - us - to support front line workers by collective mask wearing. Fighting the virus with societal purpose. Peter’s loyalty to Jesus was essential, but not sufficient, so Jesus, God-filled and God-driven, began assembling and teaching and motivating the community of faith that would live after him, a perpetual posse of Rockies, who can carry forward his labor of love until the universe is complete and consummated in it’s unity with most-high, most creative, Mother-Father God.
Who do people say the son of man is? Some say he has the keys to the closet and wants gay, lesbian, bisexuals and transgendered folk to go back in. Others claim he’s the supreme guardian of the unborn and line up outside abortion clinics to harass desperate souls seeking help. Others say he’s a white nationalist warrior, maybe wearing a MAGA hat these days in place of a crown of thorns. Probably a larger number say he’s a myth, a childhood fantasy, a security blanket, a crutch for people of limited imagination and intelligence.
But who do YOU say that I am? Before the world, on your next zoom meeting, in the voting booth, in the classroom, when you’re waiting in line for the next food distribution, or when you’re taking a shift at the food pantry, serving those in need. Because - if I understand this gospel episode correctly, it’s a question that is still being asked of us. You are Peter…and you…and you…and me. And Jesus, in the Spirit, is counting on us. Will we say that Jesus is the nationalist warrior king coming at the end of time with force to reign as an eternal dictator? Or will we finish following Peter and the disciples through upas and downs, will we find ourselves living the mystery of a Messiah who dies on a cross, forgiving his enemies and who rises into us, the community of faith, the body of Christ.
Because - remember how this gospel segment ends: verse 20, “Then he sternly told the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the messiah.”
There’s a secret to unfold, a mystery to solve. But - that’s next week’s gospel! Stay tuned! In Jesus’ Name, Amen!