Sermon delivered on Trinity 1A, Sunday, June 18, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
One of our bright young stars, Carl, is our guest preacher today.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 18.1-5, 21.1-7; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.25-10.23.
Be yourself, a phrase, an admonishment really, that I’m sure all of us have heard at one point or another in our lives. This phrase shows up in different forms throughout the ages, whether it is my generation’s pithy take—“you do you”; Polonius’ advice to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet—“to thine ownself be true”; or this great philosophical statement from Taylor Swift—“just be yourself, there is no one better.” While there is a certain truth to this idea of being yourself, the constant stream of self-affirmation that flows through the veins of today’s culture can be overwhelming and the constant pressure to find your true self and then be that person can be exhausting. On most days, we probably find ourselves more in line with screenwriter Joss Whedon’s view on this topic: “Remember to always be yourself. Unless you suck.” Here, Whedon reveals a deep truth that gets obscured by the affirmative language that gets thrown around so easily today: what if I suck? What if I don’t like myself? Everyone is telling me to be myself, but if they really knew me, would they like me?
So, what do we do? If you’re anything like me, and I hope for your sake you aren’t, you start trying to make yourself better. You start with the man (or the woman) in the mirror, and you ask him (or her) to make a change—surely you can take a look at yourself and find out how to not quite suck so much! It’s that easy, right? Wrong. As preachers everywhere have taken great joy in pointing out, most of us can’t even keep a New Year’s resolution for longer than a couple weeks, so how in the world are we going to clean up the deep, ingrained dirt in ourselves? And here we arrive at the crux of the matter, and what I’m going to be taking up for the remainder of the sermon: we can’t change ourselves into the selves we would like or the selves we think we should be, but we are still called by God to be ourselves. God has called you to be you, or, as Fr. Ric likes to say, to discover your sacred why…even when you don’t like yourself.
I can already hear the questions in your heads. Doesn’t the Bible say the heart is desperately wicked? Doesn’t Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? If we are fallen, then being ourselves is a bad thing, right? Is Carl really already using the same question posing tactic that Fr. Kevin uses all the time? Yes, yes, yes, and, yes. Rest assured, I will answer these objections, real or imagined, in due time, but for now let’s get into our texts and see what they have to say about being ourselves and how God views us.
Now, I want to establish an important idea for this message up front: the notion that we have a true self and many false selves. God is calling us to be our true selves, while the world and the evil powers are desperately trying to convince us that one of our false selves will do. Heck, even we try to convince ourselves of the truth of our false notions of ourselves. In the midst of all these different pressures and expectations we experience, it can often be hard to hear the voice of the Spirit, gently guiding us toward who we are. Look at Abraham in our Old Testament reading for today. It took God a long time, in human terms, to fulfill his promise to Abraham, and with the birth of Isaac, we see God’s promise coming true. But, let’s not forget that even though God had told him directly that he would be the father of many nations, Abraham, yielding to pressures within and without, took that matter into his own hands when he had a child with Hagar. He did not trust what God had revealed to him about his true self.
God knows that we, just like Abraham, are prone to forget or doubt who we really are, but he does not condemn us for it. Rather, he provides us with material signs and gracious communities around us to remind us who we are. For Abraham and the Israelites, one of these material signs was circumcision, as we saw in today’s Old Testament reading. Circumcision served as a material reminder of God’s covenant with Abraham, the things he had promised, and his stance toward Israel. In Isaac’s circumcision, Abraham remembers God’s promises and who God has called him to be.
One last thing before I move on to the Gospel reading. In our Old Testament lesson, we see a God who keeps his promises—he may fulfill them in his own time, but he keeps them. When God tells you who you really are, he doesn’t intend to let you be anything less. Furthermore, he will use, even redeem, your past failings and mistakes in this process. Consider Sarah, who, in Genesis 18, laughs at the suggestion that she could have a child. The Lord asks her if she laughed and she denies it, afraid and embarrassed. Fast forward to our reading for today and we see Sarah saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” God has turned her laughter of scorn and disbelief into laughter of joy, he has turned her failure to bear a child into Isaac, and he has not forgotten his promises to his covenant people. Thus, when God tells us who we are, we know he will be faithful to those promises, even when we screw up.
In our Old Testament reading we see a God who keeps his promises, and in our Gospel reading today, we see God, in the form of Jesus, equipping and commissioning those whom he has called to make a difference in the world. Here, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples, telling them to go and preach the good news of the kingdom, to go out as laborers in the harvest, and he says a couple things that I want to look at more closely. Jesus says, “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” If you’ll permit me a slightly creative reading here, Jesus is telling the disciples to be themselves. He doesn’t tell them to make sure that they look a certain way or talk to certain people, all he tells them to seek out the worthy, the ones who will recognize the truth in what the disciples are doing. And if they don’t, well, just go ahead and shake the dust off your sandals as you leave—don’t worry what they think about you, because all that matters is what I think of you.
This is made even more evident in the next section of the passage, where Jesus tells the disciples that they will be brought before the powers of this world, who will try to make them conform to their ideas of selfhood. They will be flogged, persecuted, and put to death because the Lord has called them out and they have refused to continue living as a false version of themselves. How are they enabled to do this, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven? I’ll point out a couple things from this passage that lead nicely to our New Testament reading. First, Jesus tells them this: “You received without payment; give without payment.” Here, Jesus reminds them of their status in the kingdom as ones who have received an inestimable gift simply because they are loved by God. This ragtag group of men, many who were outcasts of society, have been transformed by the renewing grace of God. Knowing who they are—embraced and loved by God, but utterly dependent on his grace—allows the disciples to give without asking for reimbursement. They are telling and showing others what they have experienced: that God does not require payment, he does not require you to gain more wealth or become a better person, he only wants you…no strings attached.
Second, Jesus tells the disciples to get rid of any preconceived notions they might have of how they need to act or what they need to say to the powers that will persecute them. He says instead, “For what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” We just celebrated Pentecost a few weeks ago, where we were reminded about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and how God sent his Spirit to dwell with us. We have the Spirit, and, as a result, that relationship with God through Jesus and his Spirit forms a part of our true selves. The Spirit spoke through the disciples, and speaks through you and through me, and reminds us who we are in relationship to God. And when that happens, it doesn’t matter who you think you need to be or how you see yourself, because God sees you and speaks through you, the real you, no matter how you feel.
This brings us to our New Testament reading, where I may just finally answer some of those questions I said I was going to answer at the beginning of the sermon. So, who are we, really? How does God see us? And what do we have to do about that? Alright, let’s take these questions one at a time. Who are we? To put it simply, I’m going to default to Martin Luther—we are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously sinners and saints. Our identity as Christians is composed of our sinner-ness on one side of the coin, and our sainthood on the other. Now, for Luther, this meant that even though we are justified through faith, we still have a sin nature and we still are subject to the human tendency to mess things up and hurt others. And while I don’t have any problems with that idea, I want to take this in a slightly different direction.
Okay, so if we are sinners and saints, how does God see us? Does he love us as saints when we do good things, and get mad at us when we sin? It’s very, very easy for us to think that God deals with us in that manner, and even if we don’t think that, we often act like it. We have our own form of Christian multiple personality disorder, where we believe that God loves us unconditionally, yet we act as if God is sitting up in heaven doing some bookkeeping on us: “Well, today Carl gave that homeless guy some money, plus three points. Eh, but he got really angry while in traffic, so minus five. He’s got some work to catch back up.”
To put an end to all this talk of score-keeping, let’s turn to our New Testament reading, particularly verses six through eight: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Before we did anything, God loved us. Before we made a move toward God, he made a move toward us. If God proved his love for us while we were still sinners, why would that change once we’ve accepted his love? And, while we’ve all heard a message about Roman 5:8, I’m hard-pressed to remember hearing about the subversive, upside-down nature of the verses that precede it.
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Why would God send his Son to die for sinners, and not for the righteous and the good? Because in all our attempts at righteousness and goodness, when we believe that they can save us or please God, we are creating false selves and God is not interested in our false selves. As Robert Capon delightfully quips, “Jesus came to call sinners, not the pseudo-righteous; he came to raise the dead, not to buy drinks for the marginally alive.” Any efforts to be strong, to prove ourselves to God, are efforts to climb out of the weakness that lies at the core of us. But, Christ died for sinners when we were weak and when we are weak. Any attempt to shed that weakness is an attempt to raise ourselves by our own power. Those attempts are unnecessary, because God doesn’t just see us lying in the grave, throw some dirt on us, and tell us to get ourselves out…he’s the one in the business of raising the dead.
In Christ’s death and resurrection, the power of which continues to sustain us day after day, God does not see us as loathsome sinners, but instead sees us as saints, brimming with light and overflowing with glory. And here we encounter the other facet of our true selves, our sainthood. Yes, we are sinners, but we spend a lot of time thinking about that, and, often, not in productive ways, some of which I’ve tried to push back against this morning. But it’s very hard for us, or at least for me, to understand that God does not see us that way anymore…that’s what the cross means after all. Through his death, Christ was reconciling us and Creation to God, thus, we are reconciled. There is no penance for us to pay, Christ paid it, and, guess what, I’m pretty sure God threw that bill in the fire. It’s gone, forever. God keeps his promises. God wants us to be our true selves, not the ones we think we need to be. And he sees us as our real selves, just as he intended.
So, what does all of this mean for us? First of all, I hope that the knowledge that you are loved and adored by the God of the universe no matter what you do brings you some peace and joy. God sees you as you truly are, as he created you, and all the sin in the world doesn’t change that. Secondly, I think there is a great freedom in understanding that many of the ways that we think of ourselves are false, and these conceptions are not how God sees us nor are they our true selves. With this freedom comes the power to step forward boldly in the power of the Spirit, just like the disciples and discover who God has made us to be. As Abraham reminds us, God keeps his promises, and he is doing a work in us, tearing down the false selves we so readily build, gently nudging us ever forward in our journeys with him. I want to leave you with a verse from one of my favorite hymns, “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” that sums up my message this morning:
“Let not conscience let you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.
This he gives you, This he gives you, This he gives you:
‘Tis the Spirit’s glimmering beam.”