Becoming What You Already Are

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Have you ever looked in the mirror and been unhappy with what you see?

Most of us have, at some point or other. We’re unhappy with the way we look, or the clothes we wear, or the house we live in, or the life we’re living.

Advertising executives make a fortune by promoting and manipulating that impulse within us. If only we buy this product, they say, our unhappiness and self-doubt will simply fade away. With their help, they say, we can be as happy and beautiful as the people we see in TV commercials.

It’s all lies, of course. We all know that advertisers are really just trying to get us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.

But here’s the thing: in order to effectively sell the lie, advertisers are preying upon a very real fear and very real desire that exist within each of us. The fear is that there is something wrong or missing inside of us, something that would make us profoundly happy, if only we had possession of it. The desire is the drive to be something other than who we are.

Want to look young and attractive forever? Buy this cream! Want to be an adventurous tough guy? Smoke the same cigarettes as the Marlboro man!

Religious advertisers have gotten in on this action too. Want to be free of that gnawing sense of guilt and loneliness? Join this church! Read this book! Attend this conference!

What all of the above have in common, from cigarettes to church conferences, is the claim to cure our sense of inner emptiness by way of some outside product. They claim that they can make us into something other than what we are. And it’s all a lie.

Christ, on the other hand, does the opposite. He offers us no quick-fix product or easy 3-step solution to our insecurities. On the contrary, Christ saves us by bringing us more deeply into who we already are.

In today’s gospel, Christ uses two images to describe this process: salt and light.

He begins by telling his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, as we know, is a seasoning for food. We don’t typically eat it by itself; we put it on other things. It adds flavor. But what would happen if salt somehow lost its taste? Jesus tells us, “It is no longer good for anything”.

The second thing Christ tells his followers is, “You are the light of the world.” Light adds visibility to a dark room. If we hide it under a basket, we’ve lost the point of having light altogether. It belongs out in the open.

The common ground between salt and light is that they both add something to something else, whether it’s flavor to a meal or visibility to a room. Their presence deepens the experience of life. And they do this, not by becoming something else, but by being precisely what they are. Salt tastes salty by nature; light is bright by nature.

In the same way, Christ’s saving work in our lives is a process by which we gradually discover, embrace, and embody the image of God within us. The Christian saints of the East call this process ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization’.

According to Eastern Orthodox theologians, the ‘Image of God’ is who we really are inside. It is that part of our deepest selves that reflects something unique about God to the world. We humans can tarnish or cover this image by our sin, but we can never fully erase it.

The redemption won for us in Christ removes the dross of our sin, restores the flavor of our saltiness, and removes the basket from over our flame so that our inner light can be more clearly seen by the world. And this inner light is not our own, but only a reflection of God’s light, just as moonlight is a reflection of sunlight.

This is how Christ’s plan of salvation differs from that of advertising executives and Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group who promoted the product of biblical law as a way to change people into something other than what they are. The Pharisees said, “Come to us and follow our program, and you will be acceptable to God.”

They had a very public reputation for being very pious and righteous, so it must have been very disconcerting when Jesus said to his followers, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Who was more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus might as well have said, “You have to be more Catholic than the Pope” or “climb higher than Mount Everest” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such an order would have seemed hopeless to the average person.

And I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus was trying to get across. It is hopeless. You can’t get there from here. If you’re trying to win your way into God’s good graces by becoming something other than what you already are, the battle is already over and you’ve lost.

Ironically, the path to holiness leads, not farther away from sin, but deeper into it. We exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by admitting that we can never live up to it. We ascend by descending. The first step toward finding a solution is facing the problem. The fulfillment of the law begins with our failure to uphold it.

This way of thinking runs counter to the logic of our consumer culture, which brainwashes us to run away and hide from our brokenness, fearing that we could never be loved if others knew what we really are.

The promise of Christ, the “double-dog-dare” of grace, is that there is indeed a light within you. A light that was placed there by God and shaped to reflect God’s own light in a way that is utterly unique in the world. This light is our true beauty, and we will not find it by running away from what we are. We find it by grace, which gives us the faith to remove the baskets from over our candles and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”

Christmas and Reincarnation

Christmas Eve sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

Have you ever met a word nerd?  You know who I’m talking about.  I’m talking about those annoying people who almost always manage to find the most complicated way of saying the simplest thing.  They would rather say, “I would like to annunciate my most sincere benevolent aspirations for your fecundity and longevity in this season of the remembrance of the birth of Christ” when a simple “Merry Christmas” would do just fine.

What do you call that? “Syllable envy?”  If one is good, then six is better.

I readily confess that I am one of those people.  My name is Barrett, and I am a word nerd.  I use this on my students at Utica College all the time.  I get a kick out of talking about “inductive teleological arguments for classical theism” and “epistemic circularity in the evaluation of sense perception.”  Yes, I am a word nerd.  But, as bad as I am, I don’t hold a candle to my wife, who was an English major in college.  Whenever we play games like Boggle or Scrabble as a family, Sarah and I have a house rule that I win whenever I manage to get half her score.

It’s no coincidence that word nerds like Sarah and me also happen to be ministers.  There’s something about this job that attracts word nerds.  Going almost all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity, we ministers have had a knack for taking something very simple and attaching some kind of multi-syllabic monstrosity to it.  Being a word nerd is lots of fun and it makes us sound smart, but it can also cause problems.  We’ve started arguments, split churches, and even fought wars over words.

If you look at tonight’s sermon title, you’ll notice one of those big nerdy words: Christmas and Reincarnation.  “Now, wait a minute,” you might say, “’Reincarnation’?  Isn’t that something that Buddhists and Hindus believe in?  So, why would we be talking about that in church at Christmas?”  Well, you would be right.  Reincarnation, as it’s typically understood, is not a Christian idea.  It typically refers to the belief (often held by most Buddhists and Hindus) that human beings are born over and over again in different bodies throughout human history.  It’s part of their beliefs about the afterlife.  It’s not a belief that has typically been part of the Jewish and Christian religions.  In case you’re still confused, let me put your mind at ease: I’m not using the word “reincarnation” in the Buddhist or Hindu sense of the term.  I’m not talking about the afterlife; I’m talking about this life.

Let me unpack this word in order to explain what I mean:

We start with the prefix Re-.  We all know what this means.  When you “redo” something, you do it again.  TV networks show “reruns” when there are no new episodes to broadcast.  You “repeat” yourself whenever you have to say something for the second time (or third, fourth, or fifth time… for those of us with toddlers or teenagers).  Re- means “again”.

Next, we come to the really meaty part: Incarnation.  Now this is a very Christian term.  It’s one of those nerdy words that ministers came up with in the early days of the Christian church.  The prefix In- is just like our English word “in”.  It means “into” or “inside”.  The next part, Carne, literally means “flesh” or “meat”.  Have you ever had chili con carne for dinner?  It’s chili with meat, right?  So, Incarnation literally means “in the flesh” or “in meat”.

Tonight, as we gather to celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Incarnation is the nerdy word that Christians use to describe how special we think Jesus is.  When we look at him, we something special.  To us, he’s more than just a philosopher or a hero.  He’s not just another person.  He’s not even our favorite person.  Christians believe that, somehow, in a way that we will never understand, the great divine and eternal mystery that we call “God” was present in this flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s what we mean when we talk about the Incarnation: God “in the flesh”.  Christians have this two thousand year old hunch that something about the mystery and meaning of life itself was making itself known through this Jesus guy.  We can’t quite put our finger on it, but we can sense it in the things he said and did.  For us, he’s like that missing puzzle piece that makes all the other pieces of life’s puzzle fit together.  When we look at and listen to Jesus, we feel like we can finally see things clearly and make sense of the universe.  That’s why we like to call him “The Light of the World”.

Light is an amazing thing.  Without it, life would be impossible.  The light of the sun warms our planet to the point where organic life can exist.  Plants feed on sunlight through the process of photosynthesis.  Animals eat those plants.  Further up the food chain, humans are nourished by both animals and plants.  So, in an indirect way, we eat light.  Obviously, light also helps us to see clearly and make sense of our surroundings.  We are dependent on light as a basic natural resource.  From Christians, Jesus makes life possible, he nourishes our life, and he helps us to make sense of life and see things more clearly.

There’s a lot of talk about light in the passages from the Bible that we read tonight.  In the beginning, God is present in the darkness and says, “Let there be light.”  In the second reading, Jesus was described as “The true light, which enlightens everyone” that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In the third reading, we see Jesus in action as “the light of the world.”  What is he doing?  He’s healing somebody!  That should give us a big clue about what it means to be “the light of the world.”

Finally, in the last reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gets really interesting.  He takes this idea of the eternal mystery and the light of the world and turns it back on us.  He says, “You are the light of the world.”  And then he tells people, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

The really neat thing about the Incarnation is that it’s not just something that happened with one guy two thousand years ago.  It happens again and again and again.  God didn’t just happen to pop on down for a visit during Jesus’ lifetime.  God is still here with us.  The light of the world continues to shine.  In the midst of the brutality, chaos, and darkness of this world, the words of John’s gospel still ring true: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There is still darkness in this world, yet the light of the world continues to shine.  Where?  We don’t see Jesus physically hanging around anymore.  Where is the light of the world?  It’s you.  The light of the world shines in you.  That’s what Jesus said.  “You are the light of the world… [so] let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

When we live as people of love, committing “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, the light of the world “takes on flesh again” in us.  Did you hear that?  “Takes on flesh again”: Re-in-carnate.

I’m not talking about reincarnation because I believe that people come back to earth again and again after death.  It’s not about life after death; it’s about life before death.  And you don’t get reincarnated at all.  It’s Christ who gets reincarnated in you whenever you love.  Jesus is the light of the world.  You are the light of the world.  That’s what reincarnation has to do with Christmas.

Here’s a cheesy song, but what the hey: It’s Christmas.

“And God saw that it was good.”

Image of the Carina Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Trinity Sunday sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Genesis 1:1-2:4a.

We read this morning from the story of creation in the book of Genesis.  This is one of the most familiar (and controversial) texts in the entire Bible.  It’s often used as a wedge and a weapon by those who would try to set up science and faith as mutually exclusive categories of knowledge.

Some say that this is a literal and historical account of what actually happened during the first week of existence for the universe (which they take to have happened about six thousand years ago).  These folks often have witty bumper stickers that say things like, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” or “The Big Bang Theory: God spoke and BANG, it happened”.

On the other hand, there are those who say that this story is nothing more than an ancient legend made up by people who didn’t have the benefit of modern science at their disposal.  These days, they say, this story is useful only as a cultural artifact.  It should be studied in the same way that Greek mythology is studied: without regard for its truth or relevance to contemporary life.

So then, are these our only two options for understanding this text?  Do we reject, on the one hand, the findings of the scientific community as the deceptions of Satan or the product of secular humanist conspiracy?  Or, on the other hand, do we throw out the Bible as an ancient relic, abandoning it to be used and abused by ignorant bigots, like those who once believed that the earth is flat?

Or is there a third option?  Is there some way for us to lower our mental buckets into this well and bring up gallons of living water?  Can this text serve as a source of divine truth for us, even if we don’t accept it as literally and historically factual?  I think there is.

Let’s start by looking at the text itself.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of repetition going on.  “And God said, ‘Let there be… and God saw that it was good… and there was evening and there was morning, the [#] day.”  This happens over and over again, so much that you start to expect it.  There is a kind of natural rhythm to this passage.  Tell me, where else do you find rhythm and repetition in language?  In poetry!  This text reads like a poem.

What’s even more interesting is how the ideas and images in this poem develop as we read on.  Let’s look at the first six days of creation and the creatures that emerge on each day.  To make it easier to understand, we’re going to divide the days into two groups that stand side by side: days 1-3 and days 4-6.

On the first day, God creates light and darkness itself.  Parallel this with the fourth day, when God creates the sun, moon, and stars (i.e. those objects (beings) that dwell in the light and darkness of day and night).  On the second day, God separates the sky and the water.  Then look at the fifth day, when God creates birds and fish (i.e. the life-forms that live in the sky and water).  On the third day, God calls forth the land and vegetation from the sea.  Match this up with the sixth day, when God makes land animals and humans, whose job it is to care for the rest of creation.

On days 1-3, God creates a particular environment and then fills each environment with inhabitants on days 4-6, leaving human beings in charge of the whole thing.  Then, on the seventh day, God takes a break.  For this reason, the text tells us, every seventh day is set apart as sacred.  On this day, people are called to rest from their work and reflect on the goodness of God’s creation.

“Okay Barrett,” you might say, “it’s a nice poem, but what does it mean?  Why are these words and ideas laid out in the way they are?”  In order to answer that question, it would make sense to look at who wrote this poem, where and when it was written, and why they wrote it.

The problem is that we don’t exactly know the who, where, when, and why of this poem’s author.  Unlike modern writers, authors in the ancient world didn’t exactly sign and date their material.  And, as any teacher will tell you, it’s almost impossible to figure out who wrote a nameless and dateless paper, even when you know it was written in the last week!  Imagine trying to do it with a paper that’s several thousand years old!  Forget about it!

Biblical scholars have spent years trying to solve this mystery.  Their best guess is that this poem was probably written by a Jewish person sometime during the sixth century B.C.  Jews at that time were living in exile, working as slaves in the country of Babylon.  The Babylonians had conquered the holy land and dragged many of the people off to work for them elsewhere.  Removing people from their land was a common strategy used by the Babylonians to break people’s spirits and keep them submissive.  The Jews living and working in Babylon huddled together in sorrow for their lost home.  All around them, their Babylonian bosses made them feel like they were less than human.  They treated God’s people like machines or property.  They made fun of Jewish culture and religion.

“You God is so weak,” they said, “our god, Marduk, was able to beat yours in battle.  That’s why you’re our slaves now.  Why don’t you give up worshiping your pitiful little God and worship ours instead?”

Well, the Jews didn’t listen to that talk.  They got together and, once a week, these Jewish slaves went on strike.  They refused to work.  They huddled together to sing, pray, and tell stories.  They celebrated their faith and culture.  This is the Sabbath day.

On the Sabbath the Jews said to the Babylonians, “You might be in charge (for now) but you don’t own us.  We belong to our God, who made heaven and earth.”  That’s where scholars think this poem came from.  The sun, moon, and animals were all different gods to the Babylonians.  They worshiped them and made all kinds of sacrifices, but the Jews said, “Those aren’t gods!  The sun and moon are just lights in the sky.  The animals were made by our God and given to us to care for.”  Rather than bowing down, the Jewish people stood up to preserve their dignity and celebrate their faith that, one day, their one true God would free them from slavery and bring them home again, just like God once did with Moses in Egypt.  In the meantime, the Jews kept going on strike once a week.  They kept meeting together to worship.  “We’re not your property,” they said, “We’re God’s people.”

So this poem becomes a celebration of faith, hope, and human dignity in the face of chaos, destruction, and oppression.  The poem opens with the image of a dark and stormy ocean.  Nothing but a “formless void”, but God is there.  God is speaking.  And God is making something good out of this mess!

In the same way, you and I live in a dark and chaotic world.  The society around us laughs at our faith.  It would be so easy to become frightened or cynical.  Maybe we’re not exactly slaves, like the Jews were under the Babylonians, but we often get treated like we’re less than human.  Government bureaucracy treats us like cattle, shuffling us around and identifying us by our Social Security Number.  Corporate advertising calls us “consumers” and tells us that our only value as human beings comes from how much money we have to spend.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” they say, “you’ve got to take whatever you can get or somebody else will!”

Can we, as people of faith, find the courage to stand up and say no to that?

Like the ancient Jews, you and I already gather here once a week to sing, pray, and tell stories like this one.  When you come here, you’re reminding yourself that you are more than just a consumer or constituent.  You are a child of God.  You have inherent dignity as a human being.  You matter.

That’s a message that the world around you will try to drown out, if it can.  It will try to swallow up your soul in that ocean of darkness and chaos.

The power of faith is the power to resist that fear and cynicism.  It’s the power of hope.  It’s the power of human dignity.  It’s the power to celebrate the goodness of creation.  It’s the power to say that our God is more real than the false gods of consumerism and ideology.  The power of faith is the power to say, “God is making something good out of this mess!”

Do you believe that?  Can you see in your life what the ancient Jews saw in this passage?  The truth in this text has little to do with how the universe began, whether it was thousands or billions of years ago.  It has everything to do with how you look at the universe today.  Are you a faith-full or a faith-less person?  My prayer is that God would open your heart in the midst of this life’s “formless void”, so full of darkness and chaos, and that you would somehow sense the mystery of God’s presence saying to you, “Let there be light.”