Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
As I listened to the lessons for today, it seemed to me that identity issues are prominent. Jesus asks his disciples "who do you say that I am?" Have they been paying attention? Are they aware of what’s going on?
The apostle Paul is also concerned with a couple of identity issues: using the different gifts given to each member, and also finding or forging a new identity, as members of the body of Christ.
One reason these "identity issues" stood out for me is that I have been reading a book about the management style of the Jesuits, an organization within the Roman Catholic church. The author, trained as a Jesuit before leaving for a career as an investment banker, makes the case that the thing which has allowed the Jesuits to be a successful 450 year old company, is their focus first of all not on what they do, but on who they are.
Their core strength as an organization originates not in their mission, but in developing self-awareness. Every Jesuit goes through a long period of formation including spiritual exercises which help them understand their strengths, weaknesses, values and worldview. It redirects Jesus’ question, as if to say, before you can really understand who Jesus is, "Who do you say that you are?"
It seems to me that we have really misunderstood that question from Jesus – "who do you say that I am?" – if we see it as a test, and the right answer is "Messiah!" Had the reading continued, we would have seen that Peter’s answer was only partially right, for he then failed to accept the truth of who this Messiah was, not a conquering hero, but a poor servant who would suffer and die. I don't know about you, but I'm inclined to behave differently in relation to a conquering warrior than to a suffering servant.
You see, I think Jesus’ question is about relationship: "who do YOU say that I am?" Had anyone asked Jesus that question – "Who are you?" – in chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel, I doubt he would have been able to answer. Let’s remember that in the preceding chapters, Jesus had heard God’s voice calling him beloved. He had been driven into the wilderness and been tested by the devil to understand himself in relation to God. He had repeatedly gone off by himself to be and become a person shaped in prayer.
It seems to me that part of what Jesus did, and part of our own call in Christ, is to accept self-knowledge as part of our mission. Self-awareness, knowing ourselves, helps us relate to God.
The Jesuits use a daily prayer of self-examination, which asks things like:
· [God,] When did I sense your presence the most in my day?
· When did your presence seem farthest away from me in my day?
· How were you loving me in my day?
· How were you loving me even when your presence seemed far away?
· How did I respond to your love in my day?
AA and other Twelve Step movements also value self-awareness in the process of recovery. The “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” helps one become aware not only of their current identity, but also to form a new identity, free from addiction.
For our congregation to move forward in the process of calling a pastor, and more importantly, to develop in our mission to love, welcome, nurture, and serve all people by following the example of Jesus Christ, we have to know ourselves, our challenges as well as our gifts. Some of you have worked on our mission profile, our description of ourselves to the Synod and to prospective pastors. Knowing who we are helps others know us, and also helps us know what we need from our pastoral leader.
On Friday I was in Baltimore and happened by First English Lutheran Church, Harvey and Carol’s former congregation. It is a tall steeple church, and I had the opportunity to read the church sign, which this week displayed the message "To hear God, turn down the world’s volume."
To hear God, turn down the world’s volume.
The disciple’s journey consists of letting the good news of Jesus Christ replace and reshape what the world has taught us. Yet even the words of God are heard through the loudspeakers of the world, so that God’s good news can be distorted, so that even the words of scripture may become a barrier to hearing God’s true Word.
For instance, you may have heard this line from the second reading where the Apostle Paul counsels his hearers to not "think of yourself more highly than you ought." There’s someone I know who heard this line a lot when they were growing up, in house which quoted some of the Bible. "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" was paired with "don’t stick out," "don’t ask questions," "keep in your place." "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" became "don’t think much of yourself ‘cause you ain’t much."
Even though it’s implied in the text, I wish the Apostle had gone on to be more explicit, to spell out the antidote to this kind of distortion. You see, the corollary to "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought," is "Don’t think of yourself less highly than you ought."
What he actually said is a call to examine yourself, have an accurate view of yourself. And that means is seeing you the way Jesus, the way God sees you. "Think with sober judgment," we are told, "each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." Not through a lens of idealized fantasy or one of degradation. True discernment is knowing yourself according to the measure of faith that God has given!
We know that this more positive view is true, because look at what the Apostle goes on to say. He does not give a list of warnings or critiques, but highlights those gifts which we should practice and develop. These gifts are ours by God’s grace: prophecy, not as a measure of our wisdom, but in proportion to faith. Gifts of ministry to be developed in ministry, gifts of teaching in teaching. Those who can exhort and encourage should do so, all of us have gifts so all can practice generosity, and our leaders should lead diligently and consistently. And when we practice compassion and service, we can do so cheerfully.
This exhortation is not to be more humble, not to avoid aggrandizement, but to accurately discern and to better use our gifts – to become greater, not in our imagination, but in our discipleship.
You see, this leads us back to that other oft-quoted line that introduces this subject, much beloved by teachers, that we are not to be captive to the noise of this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds. "Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." This is not simply learning a few new things, but a reorienting of how we know ourselves, how we seen and relate to the world.
As often happens when you begin listening for God, I heard someone yesterday say something relevant to this idea: "Change is inevitable; transformation is a choice."
The world will bring us changes, both those we welcome and those that are more difficult. Children, we hope, grow up and change. Economic circumstances and health are not solely matters of our choice. We lose people who are dear to us. But we have power and authority when we choose to cooperate with God’s call to us, that call to be transformed, to do the spiritual and emotional and physical and behavioral work needed to exercise and develop God’s good gifts, to be changed by this life that has been given and entrusted to us.
Where are you in this work of transformation? Where are we as a congregation?...
"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..."
This is not the sacrifice of ourselves upon the altar. There’s no blood demanded here – the appeal is not through God’s vengeance, or the need to satisfy a debt, or even through a sense of justice, but by the mercies of God. The sacrifice God wishes us to make is our transformation, the change from someone captive to the worst to someone blessed by the best.
Not to think of ourselves as the greatest thing the world has ever seen – but to know ourselves in relation to the greatest thing the world has ever, and will ever see – God’s infinite and unfailing love.
Think back to that line from AA’s Twelve Steps: "We conducted a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." It can be searching because God already knows us, and it can be fearless because God is not someone we need fear. God loves us beyond our imagining, and when we see ourselves in the light of God, when we see ourselves in truth, the way God sees us, it is through the eyes of love. That love is the engine of our transformation, the source of our renewal.
Who do you say that you are?
Why, that’s easy. We are God’s beloved. And that, brothers and sisters, is not only enough. That is everything.
Lowney, Chris. Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. Loyola Press, 2003.
Prayer of Examen. http://www.metamorpha.com/Guidance/SpiritualDisciplines/tabid/83/ctl/Detail/mid/608/xmid/408/xmfid/20/Default.aspx