Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Sometimes I really love ambiguity. It gives me a chance to look at the same thing in different ways. Some of our greatest art and some of our greatest literature would not be so were it not for ambiguity. Look at the Mona Lisa, for instance. Is she smiling? Think about Moby Dick. What does that white whale represent? Of course, there are times I hate it, too. Like when I want a direct answer to something and all I get is everything but a direct answer. Jesus was particularly gifted at responding ambiguously. It makes us think! And, I have to admit, I enjoy preaching ambiguously; not because I’m trying to be mean or I’m trying to obfuscate, but because I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a lot of questions. I pose these questions and suggest different ways to think about them but I don’t have the answer for you, only you do. So, I invite you to think with me. The title of today’s message is deliberately ambiguous. I’ll read the same words two ways: Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? Isn’t it amazing that the same words can have such different connotations simply being read with different emphasis? In this morning’s message I’m going to embrace both of these connotations as we talk a little more about how we identify ourselves. I know we’ve spent a lot of time talking about who we are, who is our neighbor, and what God may be calling us to do, but today’s lectionary readings are almost screaming these messages. And, I don’t think it’s possible to think about them too much! When we think we have the answers we’re in trouble because we are constantly changing. Life is constantly changing. As soon as we stop searching and wondering, and close ourselves off to new possibilities we become stagnant and complacent both as individuals and as a community. That is not good. That is just the opposite of what God is calling us to do. So let’s take a look at these scripture passages and see how we might gain some fresh insight into our three questions. And, the way we read them this morning they are in reverse order. We’ll save the best for last. Romans: I may have mentioned in the past that when I was in seminary I had a course that was entirely devoted to this book. And, it was taught by a professor who has made the study of the Apostle Paul his life’s work. It is the very first book in the Epistles and that is not because it’s his earliest letter. It is in fact the last letter that we have from him. It is also the longest of all of them. The reason that it is first is because it is his most important. It is when he is the most theologically mature. Since his conversion he, like us (I hope) continues to spiritually evolve. He was a skilled lawyer, so he uses all of the rhetorical devices of the time to make his arguments persuasive and compelling. He was writing to the early Roman Christian churches (such as they were) to let them know that he was on his way to see them and hoped to get some funding so that he could continue his evangelical work in Spain. Spain was his ultimate destination since, in those days it was the end of the then known world. It was as far west as you could go. Completing his work there would mean that he had brought the good news of Jesus Christ to virtually the entire known world; from south to north and from east to west. That’s pretty impressive for one guy. Unfortunately he never made it to Spain. He ended up being imprisoned in Rome and was ultimately martyred there. However, his gifted evangelical oratory remains today as having effectively brought this good news to millions for over two thousand years. So, back to chapter 12. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This would have resonated with the Roman followers since, unlike now, ritual sacrifice was a common occurrence. It was practiced by both Jews and pagans. It was common to kill a living thing as a tribute and expression of worship. But, Paul is talking about not killing but living. Make your body a living sacrifice. Show the world who you are not by killing something but by living a holy life. He goes on to say, “don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” And, there you have Paul’s response to our own question three. How do we discern what God is calling us to do? We look beyond the things, the circumstances, in our lives that are holding us back. We let go of the chains of materialism, mistrust, fear, anger, all of that stuff, to let ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That puts us in a place where we are ready to hear that still small voice of God. It’s like opening a window to let in the fresh air. It’s like coming up from underwater and hearing the life all around you. It’s like feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin (you can probably tell I’ve been to the beach on vacation, right?). It’s like an unexpected taste that simply sends you over the moon in delight. This is what it is like to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. It’s amazing!
Our second question has been who is our neighbor. Verse 4 is Paul’s response to that: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Gifts like prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, compassion, and on and on. Paul’s message is obviously directed at this early Christian community, but I might suggest that it can easily be expanded to our community, and not necessarily limited to FFC. I would suggest that there is not one person who has not been created in the image of God. And, there is not one person who has not been graced with a unique Godly gift. Pushing it even more, we are one body in Christ whether we believe in the divinity of Christ or not. I know that can be hard to digest for some but I so much believe that each of us has so much potential…whether we identify as Christian…or not. Our neighbor is loved as much by God as we are. The biggest part of our current polarized, divisive culture is that we close ourselves off from the divinity in each other. How much better might our world be if we could only think of each other, no matter how different: in culture, in politics, in gender, in race, you name it…as divine. We are all members of this body. We all have gifts that contribute to the Godliness of this body. Our neighbor is next to you right now. You might know them and you might not. Our neighbor is in Bellingham, Wrentham, Norfolk, and Medway. Our neighbor is in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and, as hard as it is to say, New York. Our neighbor is in Mexico and Canada. Our neighbor is in South America, Europe, the Far East, the Middle East, the Near East, Australia, Africa, and the Arctics. There is nowhere you can think of that is not our neighbor. There is no where you can think of that does not have an aspect of the Divine; especially and amazingly including you. That is our neighbor. Thank God.
To our gospel message and the reverse order of our questions. Who are you? And, we’ll give it a twist. Who do people say that you are? Who do you think you are? People love to talk, don’t they? Who among us has never participated in gossip? Why do we do that? I think part of it is that we like to be in the know. We like knowing something other people don’t, and we have a sense of authority when we share secret things, even though they may not be true. Jesus was wondering about the gossip surrounding him. He asks Peter, “So, what have you heard about me? What’s the scuttlebutt on who folks say I am?” Somehow I don’t think Jesus was very surprised at Peter’s answer. There was plenty of gossip about who this prophet from Galilee was. He was rumored to be his cousin, John the Baptist, or the great prophet Elijah, or a ton of other possibilities. The gossip spread like wildfire; as gossip does. But, then there is that burning, direct, unambiguous question to Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s responds unequivocally and with conviction says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Right answer, right? Jesus sure thought so. Enough so that he told Peter he would be in charge of building the church. He would have the keys to the kingdom. Wow! That’s pretty heady stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but do you know what I think of when I hear this scripture? I’m transported to that upper room in Jerusalem. The night that Jesus shares his last meal with his friends. The night he tells Peter, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” Peter doesn’t believe it, but we know it happens don’t we? Peter is just so incredibly human, incredibly vulnerable, and incredibly flawed, just like us. But, the good news there is that despite our weakness, our human flaws, we are loved; and loved powerfully. We all have stuff, and stuff we are not proud of. But, that does not in any way prevent us from living in to who we can be. So, who do you think other people say you are? There is not one of us that is free from being gossiped about. But the more important question is, does it matter? If you know who you are, and of course God knows who you are, what difference does it make? If someone thinks you are not who they expect you to be and says, “Who do you think you are?” Are you able to answer with, “I am who I am meant to be. I am a Christian and I love as I am loved.” Who do you think you are? That is the question that counts. Better yet, who do you know you are? None of this think stuff. In your heart you know this. You are who you are meant to be. You are a Christian and you love as you are loved.
Let us pray:
Holy God, help us to love who we are. Help us to stand strong in our identifying as a people who honestly represent your redeeming love. Help us to be open to our neighbors as we honor the divine spark that is in each of us. And, O God, help us to discern your will for us as we become transformed by the renewing of our minds. May our lives be shining examples of your love. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.