A sermon preached on January 20, 2008 based upon 1Corinthians 1:1 – 9 and John 1:35 – 42, entitled, “Who we will be.”
There is this anecdote from the life of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Apparently one day he was poring over a plant in a public garden for a very long time. A police officer, his suspicions aroused, approached him and demanded: “Who are you?” Schopenhauer looked the officer in the eye, scratched his chin, and chose his words carefully, “Sir, if you could only answer that question for me, I’d be eternally grateful.”
Who am I? To reflect deeply upon this question leads us into the spiritual journey.
Part of the difficulty we have with answering this question comes from the confusion we encounter before the mystery that is “time.” In this life, we are compelled to live in chronological time, characterized by the ticks of a clock. We separate time into the past, which seems behind us, and the present, what we like to say is all we really have, and finally the future, which lies before us.
But physicists and theologians alike suggest that this perception of time contains some degree of illusion, that on the deepest level of reality past, present and future are, in fact one, though it is almost impossible for our minds to get around this concept.
The answer we give to the question of “who am I?” is shaped differently depending upon whether our focus is on the past, the present, or the future. In other words, there is: who I was, who I am now, and who I will be.
Who I was matters greatly. Where did I come from? What were the influences that shaped me? What is the story out of which I emerged? These questions demand our consideration. A person who is cut off from his or her roots — from the story in which they have been the primary character — is, in some sense cut off from a part of his or her soul.
But who I was isn’t the only thing, nor is it even the most important thing. We do in fact change. We cease to be the little, helpless kid, the awkward, dorky teenager who got absolutely tongue tied.
And so there is also who I am now, which is impacted by the roles I find myself filling, the relationships that are central to my life in the present, the problems I face, the addictions with which I struggle.
All of this is important, but it is not always as important as we tend to make it out to be.
Much of who I seem to be now — the concerns that loom so large in the present — will pass away in short order like dust in the wind.
In 1955 Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young, privileged Black preacher fresh out of Boston University Seminary, having just begun pastoring his first church in Montgomery, Alabama. Looking at him, I don’t know that there would have been much to suggest greatness that was his destiny. Within a year, however, he was thrust into the role of the spokesperson of a great liberation movement, choosing to risk his life for the cause of justice.
In 1988 Ronald Reagan was the most powerful man on the face of the planet earth. Five years later he was pretty much helpless, living with Alzheimer’s, no longer going out in public.
The third dimension of who I am is the person I will be. Christianity highlights this dimension, declaring that who I am becoming is ultimately more important than who I was or who I am now.
If, on some level of our being, we have heard the call to enter the spiritual journey, then what we are becoming are “saints.” One day, as the Apostle Paul tells us, we will be sanctified. All the garbage that gets in the way of God’s wondrous love and light shining through our lives will be left behind.
In a certain sense if we’ve begun this journey we already are saints, in so far as the seeds have been planted within us. We are gifted with moments in which we are allowed to experience a bit of what it is to be truly loving and transparent to the light — to lose ourselves in something much larger and more wonderful than our own little egos.
And yet, we also know that even as we are already saints, we are also in the present very much “sinners” as well, habitually getting stuck in ourselves, plagued by our fears and resentments, our greed and our jealousy.
I said that we are on our way to becoming saints — fully sanctified saints — but it is, of course, possible for a person to persistently turn a totally deaf ear to the divine call and claim on their lives — to enter a process of “losing one’s soul”, as Jesus termed it. In doing so, a person would be, by default, traveling a path leading to a place where the inner garbage snuffs out the light; to a deep and dark bitterness.
Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning describes the first meeting of Jesus and Simon. Jesus has the capacity to see in people that which others miss; in particular, he sees what a person is becoming when the rest of us tend to get stuck on what a person was or is now.
Jesus sees Simon, and right there on the spot he gives him a new name. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas”, which translates Peter, which you may know means Rock.
The implication is that Simon Peter is strong, reliable, unmovable. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus goes on to says that upon this rock he will build his church. So evidently if we ask, “Who is Simon Peter?” according to Jesus we could say he is someone who is strong, reliable, unmovable.
But Jesus is here speaking more of who Peter will be, rather than what he is now, in the present.
There aren’t many stories that occur in all four Gospels, but one story we do find in all four is the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus on the night of his arrest, when, for a brief period of time, the spotlight is squarely on Peter, and what he displayed in that moment is anything but strong, reliable, unmovable. Simon Peter moved pretty quick indeed when he felt himself to be in danger.
In time, however, Peter does in fact become stronger, as he goes through the whole experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the sufferings he undergoes later on Jesus’ behalf. Curiously, his strength arises from his own humble acknowledgement of his frailty and weakness.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are becoming. We started the service with a reading from the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. It’s funny — if this is all we read, we might think the church at Corinth was a place where nothing but love could be found. As the letters go on, however, we discover that the congregation was plagued by the same sort of thing that has plagued congregations throughout the ages: pettiness, divisiveness, power plays.
Paul’s opening to his letter intentionally reminds his readers who they are called to be, who they are in some sense already, in order to inspire them to move away from the pettiness they have fallen into in the present.
Past, present and future are all linked, and sometimes we do need to be reminded where we have come from. Paul also got a name change: He was once Saul, the man full of violent rage who persecuted Christians, and he became the primary apostle to the Gentiles, but every so often he needs to be humbled by remembering where he started, and how the transformation of his life wasn’t his doing — it was all God’s grace.
The Civil Rights movement that Martin Luther King led was driven by a vision of who we will be: Don’t be deceived into thinking that the way things are now is how they always will be; those who are oppressed now are indeed proud children of God who one day soon will rightfully claim their full dignity and place within this society; those who are the oppressors now will one day find the joy of being a part of God’s color blind society. I have a dream, Martin Luther King declared, that one day soon, we will be who God in fact called us to be.
I wrote a play a while back called “No Preacher Man” that dealt with this whole theme.
The story involves a black teenager named Benny who is going door to door in a white suburban neighborhood, trying his hand at selling magazines. His past has known a lot of hardship and sorrow. His present is uncertain; he seems to be floating about aimlessly.
Benny comes to a house where a handicapped man and his elderly mother live. They are grief stricken, for the father and husband of the household has died just days before.
Somehow God’s grace is at work in this unlikely encounter of these people from what seems like altogether worlds. Without even recognizing it, Benny discovers himself to be on a spiritual quest.
The seeds of this quest were planted in his past. Benny recalls going to church as a child with his mother. In large part he was bored there, but one thing he remembers clearly, the words with which the preacher, who he refers to as a big sweaty man, would end every service — words at the time he couldn’t really comprehend, but which nonetheless, stayed with him through the years.
In the course of the play, Benny discovers himself called to be a servant to this odd grieving mother and son. He fakes his way through an improvised funeral service during which surprising grace is discovered.
In the end, Benny abruptly leaves the house, frightened by the road he glimpses ahead of him. But in the very last scene, the handicapped son, gifted with a remarkable memory, quotes the words of the preacher that Benny had earlier relayed to him.
“Sometimes you may feel like you’re abandoned — orphaned in this world. But let me tell you, and don’t you forget it: You ain’t orphans! You’ve been adopted by the Heavenly Father through the ministrations of the Holy Ghost, through whom all things are possible! Why, you’re the beloved sons and daughters of the great and glorious King — that’s who you are!”