Who Are You and What Does God Have to Do With It
August 16, 2015
Epworth United Methodist Church
Clara had insomnia one night and ended up looking at a online shopping site that was selling wrinkle reduction face cream -- guaranteed. (Just as it’s dangerous to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, it’s dangerous to go online shopping when you’re exhausted.) She bought a large bottle of Hydra Moisture Mask. For $29.99 you could throw in special moisturizing curlers that will make your hair shine -- guaranteed. She needed a new look. She threw them in. Clara forgot she had purchased the items until UPS arrived. She was home early from work that day so she figured she’d try them. She pulled on an old, bright purple sweat shirt, so as not to ruin her good clothes, and applied everything as directed. Both the green liquid mask and the bright yellow moisturizing rollers had to stay on for 30 minutes. While she waited she went to fix a cup of coffee. At that moment her teenage son walked in the door. When she turned around to greet him, he jumped back and screamed, “Whoa! Who are you and what have you done with my mother?!”
Who are you -- under whatever masks you wear? Last week on this Identity Search series we asked, “Who is God?” Today, we look at our identity. Who are you? Who am I? And what does God have to do with it?
Who are we? We start working on that question, long before wrinkles appear, really from the day we were born. The question of identity comes up more intensely at times of transition: adolescence, career changes, relationship changes, moves, retirement, body changes. Answering that question is a lifetime quest.
The Epworth youth who went to help work on homes through Sierra Service Project, came back and talked about how powerful it was for them to let down, to more fully be themselves while they were there. The SSP staff invited them to take off their “cool coats” and put on their “social sweaters.” When have you been willing and able to take off your cool, got-it-all-together coat and put on your social, we’re-all-in-this-together sweater?
It’s not easy to take off that cool coat. When have you projected a “cool” image of yourself? Who are you? What’s in your selfie? (I know, I can’t believe I’m using “selfie” in a sermon either.) Selfies are not new. We’ve all projected images of ourselves. Others project on us as well. It’s human.
Now, to be clear, I have nothing against selfies. I’m talking about something much deeper. When have you projected an idealized image of yourself to others or even to yourself? The times in my life when I was most focused on projecting the right image are times when I felt the most vulnerable. My “selfie” attempts actually did little to make me feel more confident, because they focused my attention outward on public perception. Instead, they left me tied up in myself.
Henry Nouwen, author and priest, talks about the dangers of focusing on the projected expectations and perceptions of others. "As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations."
What judgements, opinions, evaluations or condemnations bind you up and keep you from being more fully yourself? What ties you up?
Our internal identity is influenced by many factors, including our genes, social connections, nationality, work, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and life history. But there’s a much more powerful and influential factor.
To find that greater influence on our identity, we shift our attention away from selfie projection to self-introspection. Most likely you’ve been making this shift your whole life. That’s important, because we find the most powerful influence on our identity, within. Jesus taught about that power within, in the Gospel of Luke: “God’s Realm doesn’t come in a way you can see. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because God’s Realm is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21) We forget what the Book of Genesis affirms: that we are created in the image of God. The power of God is within you. Your soul, your self, is sacred! You are an image of God, a portrait of the Divine.
You and I didn’t create our truest identity. It is a gift from God, a reflection of God! In the scripture passage today, Jesus says we are his siblings. That makes us children of God. How often do you remember that? I have to say, I don’t remember often enough.
The Apostle Paul is a better model of the shift from projection to introspection than I am. We know he found that power of God within him, because he relinquished his status as a Roman citizen and went from persecuting Christians to risking his life to tell people about the love of God he experienced in Christ. In the Letter to the Galatians he writes about what motivated him: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) Paul found freedom to be himself when he turned away from trying to please people, and instead, focused on God. He turned from projection of a false self to introspection on his true identity. He turned from slavery to others’ opinions and found the freedom to be himself.
How have you turned from projection to introspection in your life? What has helped you remember that it’s not about how you look, where you work, or what people think? What has helped you remember that you are a child of God, created in the image of the Divine?
What happened one Sunday to Jerry Lambert reminded him. He pastored a church that was trying to cut costs and used carpet remnants to make the runner down the center aisle. Over the years the seams started to loosen. Jerry's wife urged him to get it fixed before someone caught their foot and fell. He put it on the back burner. A few weeks later he was running a few minutes late and charged up the aisle at the beginning of the service. Just as he got to the front, in full view of the whole congregation, his foot got caught under a seam and he lunged forward. Fortunately, he was able to catch himself before hitting the ground, but his hairpiece took flight. He snatched it out of the air and slapped it back on his head, walking with a calm, cool air to the pulpit. When he turned toward the congregation the place was busting up with laughter. He had placed his toupee on sideways. His advice to us, "If it's not your own hair, don't wear it."[i]
If it’s not your own identity don’t wear it, because God created you divinely magnificent! You don’t have to change who you are to be lovable. In the deepest place within ourselves, even where we are afraid, ashamed, worried or weary we find God’s presence! God’s image, God’s love is intrinsic to your identity, intricately laced through your being. That means your worst fears and others’ worst affronts can’t touch that. No external insult can change that internal image. Let that beautiful, internal selfie of creativity and love lead you. It leads us to freedom from slavery to opinion and oppression for ourselves and for others.
You see, Jesus calls us to a different kind of projection. He calls us to take that image of wholeness and beauty and project that into the world, as we work to transform despair to hope, injustice to respect, bondage to freedom. And the miracle is, we get transformed along the way.
Bishop John Shelby Spong says we find the power to do it in Christ:
Look at him!
Look not at his divinity,
but look rather, at his freedom.
Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power,
but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away.
Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him,
but look, rather, at his courage to be,
his ability to live, and
the contagious quality of his love.
Stop your frantic search!
Be still and know that this is God:
this life, this being;
when you are accepted, accept yourself;
when you are forgiven, forgive yourself;
when you are loved, love yourself.
Grasp that Christpower
and dare to be
[i] Jerry Lambert, Humor for Preaching and Teaching, E. Rowell and B. Steffen, p. 93
[ii]John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 292