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Sermon – What Are We? – June 15, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 15, 2014

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

What Are We?

Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13; Matthew 28: 16-20

The story of the “Ugly Duckling” is about a newly hatched swan raised by a mother duck. Compared to what he believes his brothers and sisters he is awkward and ugly, and is regarded that way, by others and himself, until he grows into a swan. Then he realizes, seeing other swans, his true nature, and is set free from the belittling identity of failure in which he had grown.

More than one childhood memoir from the middle of the last century had a similar theme. The author had been a child who, inspired by fairy tales, imagined having been stolen by gypsies from the cradle of some more sophisticated and wondrous family and transferred to the dreary reality of the place and people of his or her upbringing. The foundling with a great destiny was a common enough theme in children’s literature. Many a child has secretly identified with a hero or heroine who endures an existence something like Cinderella’s until a great moment arrives when one’s true nature will be recognized and lead to fulfillment.

There was a movie when I was younger called “Breaking Away,” which begins with a Midwestern household puzzled by having a son who identifies with Italian bicycle racing. His father is dismissive, his mom supportive but stumped, but by the end of the movie he has dreamed far enough into the identity of a cycling champion that he becomes one. Separating out of a conventional and uncomprehending household and claiming one’s true nature is a big plot line, related over and over again. Part of this is due to the fact that the artistic types who create stories and entertainment are likelier to live this pattern than other people, but part of it simply is human nature. There’s something in us which rebels at becoming ordinary.

We’ve been marking half a century since some big events which inaugurated youth culture in my lifetime. The Beatles were one. George Harrison early was involved in another,andthatwasseekingenlightenmentthroughEasternreligioustraditions. Another route to expanded consciousness was psychedelic drugs, which some people believed released a person’s inner self from culturally-imposed limitations to be part of a larger reality. The therapeutic community joined in through fostering what became known as the “human potential movement.” It has been just over fifty years since the Esalen institute was founded in California, an ancestor of thousands of approaches to making the self more authentic, masterful, and serene.

A somewhat scientific mindset, trusting things suggested through evidence of some kind, remains behind the traces of Darwin we see in reality shows based on competition and rejection. It also, via psychotherapy, shows up in television shows in which self-exposure and guided conflict provide the same fascination once offered by the carnival side show while offering themselves as models of healthy self-discovery.

All this stuff–and there is a lot of it in multimedia experience–reflects assumptions about who it is that human beings are. If the nineteenth century sought to improve human life by getting a better understanding of the Bible and God–Americans invented Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism and Christian Science over the course of a few decades in the 1800’s–the twentieth century tried to find a better way to think about life in a world in which the Bible and God no longer had authority for many. Those efforts are still evolving. You can’t escape them–the local school, the health care system, the magazines, all work with a model of the healthy human personality, and functional human relationships.

One reason that people talk about “functional” and “dysfunctional” individuals and familiesisthat”functionality”isclosetobeingavalue-freecategory. Allitmeansisthatit works. One person’s take on life is different from another person’s, and that’s fine as long as both of them satisfy some minimum needs of their own without interfering with the needs of others.

We have our own model of what a human being is and how a human life achieves its potential. We have our own way of understanding that human quality of refusing to be ordinary, of feeling that we have a bigger destiny than the world around us seems to offer.

What that is begins with the question asked by Psalm 8. Who are we, that God is mindful of us? What does it mean to be made “a little lower than the angels?” See, our version of the Ugly Duckling story, our variation on the foundling raised by strangers story, is that we have our origin in another place altogether. We are children of God. We are spiritual beings.

The question arises because of that “little lower.” Were we simply angels, we would be God’s all the time, faithful, obedient, enlightened. Were we simply creatures, like the birds and fish which came before we did, or like the beasts and cattle given their names by Adam, we would be simple, achieving our identity by fitting our habitat, thriving for our time and then gone. We are neither, and both. We have this odd position in the scheme of things–mortal but also God’s, limited, weak, and unwilling, but gifted with an apprehension of holiness, and trusted with the recognition of right and wrong. Looked at one way–in our failures, what could God possibly want to have to do with us? Looked at another way–in our potential, at our best, we dare believe that God attends to us because we matter to God, and God wants to matter to us.

The world into which Jesus was born had instincts about the possibilities open to being human. It had cults and temples, myths and heroes, rituals and sacred stories. First Alexander’s, and then Rome’s empire had made the world cosmopolitan. Philosophies and religions from one place found their way to another. Judaism was in the empire, because of its commercial energy favored to have its own faith tolerated more than most subject states. The empire was in Judea, and both nationalistic feeling and religious scruple¬†inspired many efforts to recover an authentic religion based on belief in the God of Israel. The gospel concludes with Christ commanding the disciples to go to all the world

and share his vision of the right way to live in the world. They are teach others Jesus’ way of life, and baptize them into membership of the Christian community. It is an effort to align the lives of men and women with the true nature of things–the priority of the needs of persons, reliance on prayer and community, a willingness to suffer, and a refusal to harm.

The early church was made up of individuals who were transformed by believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead to witness to his having been correct about all these things. They accepted martyrdom because they understood life and death differently than either the cowards or the courageous of their day. They knew themselves to be children of God. They were persuaded that, just as God had been with Christ to empower him to do great things, they had God with them to support the same aims. They were convinced that, just as God had been with Christ from life through death to resurrection, that they had the same assurance.

When Jesus, at the end of the gospel, assures them that he’ll always be with them, and tells them to obey all he has commanded, and to teach the same to others, that sounds to us like doctrines and dogmas, rules for this and prohibitions on that. That’s the less important part. More important is how they are to live together, how they are to regard and treat strangers, how bravely and how generously they can love. They are to seek to be peacemakers, not just brokers during conflict, but those whose own being anchored in the love of God brings serenity into the lives of others.

We live in an age when the world is more self-aware, and societies more diverse than ever. As in the first century, that creates a crisis of belief and identity. Just as then, we have the potential to be a community which helps the world understand itself better. We can help individuals who want to be faithful find a way.

It begins with those who are followers of Jesus Christ. We must discover and establish and maintain relationships with one another and with the world which make it possible for the love of God to be experienced. The Corinthians had been anxious and contentious, competitive and proud, and the health of their church had suffered. Paul, at the end of his second letter, asks them to put things in order. If the world is going to be made better, believers have to show the way. They are to agree with one another. They are to live in peace.

We have the same charge. We are to be a source of hope, an example of love, a model of faith. Our collective life must mirror Jesus’ emphasis on the importance of persons over niceties, compassion over social distinctions, giving over getting. We ourselves, by seeking to agree, and by striving to live together in peace, can hope to know what Paul promises, that the God of peace will be with us. Then we can live more fully as who we are, children of God.


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