Monday, August 13, 2012

Three Simple Questions: Who Am I?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 12:46-50 :

Last week we began a new series looking at Bishop Reuben Job’s book Three Simple Questions, but as it turns out those questions are really anything but simple.  The questions are: who is God? Who am I? and, finally, Who are we together?  Last week we tackled the first one, which is, at least in my mind, the hardest question which is who is God.  We looked at several different conceptions of God, and twenty-five minutes greatly condensed we stated that God is love.  But what we also discussed is the fact that since God is love that God wants to be in relationship with the creation, and most importantly to be in relationship with each and every one of us.  For God so loved the world, John says, and God loves us not only because God created us but most importantly because we are created in the image of God, we are God’s sons and daughters, which is how we answer today’s question.  Who am I?  Who are you?  We are the sons and daughters of God, we are brothers and sisters in the faith, and since we’ve answered that so easily and so well, let’s all go home, right?

Of course it’s not that simple.  At the end of today’s service we will be conducting, participating, witnessing the baptism of Landry Widner as she takes the vows of the faith and enters into the waters of baptism.  There are many things that we claim happen through the sacrament of baptism.  The first is that we are cleansed of sin, not just the sins we have already committed, but we are also offered forgiveness for the sins we have yet to commit.  It is a covenant of the past the present and the future.  Some want to leave it at that, but baptism is much more.  John the Baptist did a baptism of repentance, but the early church said that was not enough, because we must also be baptized into the Holy Spirit, which we receive when we baptize, we will actually pray after Landry comes back out of the water for the Holy Spirit to work in her life.  In addition we also recognize that through the waters of baptism we die to our old self and are reborn as followers of Christ.  But into what are we reborn, what is this new life?  We are reborn into Christ.  The church at its most basic form is a collection of the baptized, so by being baptized we become members of the body of Christ, the church, and finally, and most importantly for today’s message, through the waters of baptism we become brothers and sisters in Christ, but we also recognize ourselves as children of God.

A few weeks ago we looked at Paul’s understanding of how we are adopted by God.  Under Roman law, the only reason that adoption was practiced was to protect or pass on an inheritance, and when you were adopted you took on a new name, a new identity, a new family, and any debts you had from your previous family, or previous life as it were, were wiped out.  You became an entirely new person.  Let me say that again to emphasize its importance.  When you were adopted, you became someone new, you died to your old self and any debts you had were totally forgiven, they were wiped away and you entered into your new life completely free and clear.  You took on a new identity and a new family.  But the only way you could be adopted in the ancient world is if the family who was to adopt you did not already have a legitimate heir.  If they had a son, or many sons, they could not adopt anyone else into the family. 

But Paul says that in our case it is because of Jesus, the son of God, the legitimate heir, that because of Jesus was can be adopted and become children of God, and we recognize that adoption through the process of baptism.  When Jesus is baptized after he comes out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on him and a voice from the sky says, “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased,” and the same thing happens with us, in recognizing our relationship with God, when we are baptized God says to each and every one of us, “I am well pleased,” and we recognize that we are children of God.  As Bishop Job says, “we are made in God’s image, and God chooses to dwell within us.”

Now the answer to the question of who am I is directly connected to the question of who God is, and there are two pieces of scripture that I think illustrate that.  The first comes from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, the first three verses which say “I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.”  Now we are going to hear that again, but this time I want you to insert your name into the passage after God says I have called you by name.  “I have called you by name, (name) you are mine.”  I have called you by name, and you are mine.  I have called you by name, and you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.”  I have called you by name, and you are mine, because we are children of God.  Bishop Job says that “we are not given a special place because of our birth, place of origin, wealth, gender or occupation.  As children of God, all receive an identity and place as God’ beloved child.”  We all have inherent worth because we are made in the image of God and we are all sons and daughters of God, and God loves us.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us the parable of the prodigal son.  A man has two sons, and the youngest son goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance, and for some reason the father agrees to do this, we guess because he wants his son to be happy, but the son takes the money, goes off to a foreign land and spends all the money.  Prodigal means wasteful or extravagant.  After all the money is gone, the son has to get a job, and he is reduced to working for someone feeding his pigs.  This is about the worst thing that a Jew can do as dealing with pigs is forbidden by Jewish law, so not only has he sunk to the lowest position, he is also sinning in what he has to do, and to make matters worse the pigs are getting better and more food than he is getting.  Realizing where he is and what he has been reduced to, he resolves to go back to his father, to confess what he has done to his father and beg his father to treat him as another hired hand since he is not worthy to be called his son, and so he sets off for home, not really knowing what to expect.  But here is what we are told: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ and they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24)

The father has been sitting out watching the road waiting for his younger son to return, and rather than being upset or waiting to give him a good tongue lashing, what does the father do, he runs to him, he doesn’t walk, he doesn’t sit and wait for him to come in the gate, instead he runs to his son filled with compassion with his arms open wide and his envelopes him in a hug and kisses him, and then tells the servants to go get a robe, not just any robe, but the best one, and put a ring on his finger, which symbolizes his position within the household, and sandals on his feet and then they slaughter a fatted calf and they celebrate and party.  That we are told is what God’s love is like for us and how much God wants us to return, and we know this because of the stories which come immediately before it in which we are told that of a shepherd who when he loses one sheep, leaves the other 99 behind to go and find it, and when he does he rejoices in it with his neighbors and we are told “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk 15:7) and then the next story is the woman who loses one coin and she searches the entire house until she finds it and then she rejoices with the neighbors and again we are told, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” God wants to be in relationship with us because God loves us.

Sister Helen Prejean, some of whose story was told in the movie Dead Man Walking where she is one of the main characters said, “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”  If that weren’t true we wouldn’t be here, because we have all done some terrible things in our lives, now maybe there are others who have done worse, but that’s when we get into trouble is when we begin thinking things like that.  We all fall short of the glory of God, we have all fallen short of living into the image of God, and we have all fallen short of being good disciples of Christ. None of us love a life of Christian perfection.  None of us live in total alignment with God’s will for our lives, as Methodists we claim that we are moving on to perfection, on to being in total alignment with God.  But you know what?  In spite of all of that God still love us, God is still waiting for us with open arms, waiting for us to come home so that God can through a party for us and celebrate.  This is the God of love who wants to be in relationship with us, and it is the key to our identity, it is who we are, we are children of God, warts and all, sins and all, wants, desires, failures, successes, all of it is utterly stripped away in the presence of God, because God doesn’t care, God loves each and every one of us just as we are because we are God’s children.

In Romans, Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Some of us carry deep wounds, deep scars, deep secrets things we have only told a few people or maybe never told anyone, things that we keep hidden away from others, including God because we are afraid of them, and we are afraid that because of them that God does not like us or want us, let alone love us.  Sometimes we feel this because it’s what we think about ourselves, and sometimes it is because others have told us that we are broken or unlovable or that we have done something that God could never forgive, but that is not what we are told in scripture, nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God Paul says, Jesus says that the father waits watching the road for the son to return and that when he returns he runs to him and celebrates that what was lost has returned, and in Isaiah we hear God say, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”  We have inherent worth because we are children of God.  When we look for outside validation of ourselves, when we look to others to claim that we are worthy, then we will never be happy, we will always need more and more validation, it will never be enough.  But when we remember that we are made in God’s image, that we are children of God, and that God will always love us no matter what, then our souls can be filled and we can stop looking to fill it with other things.

The story of the prodigal son ends with the older brother getting upset that the father is slaughtering the fatted calf for his wastrel of a son who has squandered everything.  The brother wants things for himself, but not for his brother, he thinks he brother is no longer deserving, that the father should rebuke him and send him away, certainly he shouldn’t love him or do any of the things he is doing.  But the father rebukes him and tells him that he could have always had what the younger brother is getting, but the father’s love does not change for either of them because of what has happened in the past.  The father loves them both because they are his children.  Bishop Job says “When we claim our full inheritance as children of God, then we are able to see clearly and to know in the depth of our being that when we look at another human being, we are looking at a sister or brother who is God’s beloved child, just as we are…. Our identity is not something we create but something that is given by the God who made us, leads us, sustains us, and loves us.  [But] when we forget who we are and begin to see others as anything less than beloved children of God, we are giving up our identity and our inheritance as children of God.  We are no longer following Jesus when we refuse to walk as he walked and refuse to obey his command to love,” which leads us into next week’s question of answering who are we together.

Who am I? Who are you? We are children of God, who has called us by name, who waits for us, who celebrates our return, who loves us unconditionally and there is nothing which can separate us from that love.  When Martin Luther was feeling unsure of himself, when he was having doubts, when he was feeling threatened or challenged, he said that all he had to do to assure and reassure himself was to simply say, “remember you are baptized,” and when he did that then he remembered that he was a child of God and that was all that mattered.  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus asked.  And then he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Who are we?  We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we are children of God, and we remember every time we baptize and every time we remember our baptism that we baptized into, as Paul says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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