ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 23, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
“FREE TO BE ME”
Ezekiel 36: 25 – 28; 1 Corinthians 3: 5 – 11; John 8: 31 – 38
A newly promoted Lieutenant wanted to impress those under his command with a sense of his importance. Seeing a Private approach his office, he pretended to be on the phone with a General. As he waved the private into the office he said, “Yes sir, General, you can count on me.” And banged the receiver with great authority. Barking at the Private he asked what he wanted. The Private responded, “I’m here to connect your phone, Sir.”
We all have ways of announcing our self-importance. We identify ourselves with our title or role in life; we drop names of people as if we know them personally; we quote books or pretend that we too have read them; we parade our various achievements; we humbly promote our piety; we drop hints about our wealth, our education, our golf club or a recent promotion. We identify with the “successful” people in our lives – “my son the doctor”. We dominate conversations – I had a relative who could literally talk for hours; it didn’t occur to her that no one wanted to listen that long. Or we speak down to people. I have a neighbour who is certain I’m spiritually clueless and it’s her job to tell me how “The Universe” works. The sad thing is that in our effort to elevate our self, we fail to be our self – our true self. The person God created us to be. Instead we become a hollow and often transparent outer shell. Pretending to be someone we are not, sucks the life out of us.
Everyone has a “me” we think we should be or wish we were. We see someone with leadership skills and envy their ability to rally people and get things done. We know someone with amazing artistic talent and grieve our lack of ability. We watch someone with great people skills and wish we were more outgoing. We hear someone who sounds very spiritual and tell ourselves we should be more like them. We watch our friends parent or grandparent and get down on ourselves. We see someone in the spotlight and wish it was us. And if that isn’t discouraging enough, then we have the pressure to be the “me” other people want us to be. When we think about it, just about everyone wants us to be something different than what we are. Your parents want you to be more successful. Your kids want you to be more generous. Your boss wants you to be more productive. Your health club want you to be more fit. Networks want you to watch more TV. Restaurants want you to eat more. Your credit card company wants you to be more in debt. You can never be the flosser your dentist wants you to be. And let’s not even get started on what improvements your spouse dreams of.
Dissatisfaction with one’s self and the stress of striving to be the person other people need us to be kills the spirit, because God hasn’t made you to be someone else, God created you. Who we are is not something we make up; God has already made us. God knows who he intends to be. God knows our strengths, what gives us joy, how we see beauty, what we have to offer the world. God knows your true personality and your full potential. He knows your “best self”. We don’t have to make up a persona or another version of our self, because “we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and the saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do” (Ephesians 2: 10). Or as the NRSV puts it, “We are his handiwork”; we are not our own handiwork or the handiwork of someone else. We are God’s handiwork. Your life and your soul are God’s project. God knows who he made you to be. He knows your true self, your best self.
In fact, God knows us better than we know ourselves. We miss the who and why of God’s intention for us. Our growth is affected by many factors – our self-will, the expectations of others, events that are beyond our control, our selfish and self-destructive choices, our ambitions and failures. These things derail us, sully us and bend us out of shape. Our best self gets buried, or stunted, or it languishes, or it burns out. Somewhere along the line, our true self gets lost, and we need to be restored. Restoration is the work of God in Jesus Christ – God does not leave us lost or injured or warped. God doesn’t give up on us and exchange us for a different model. The true self that God created is precious in his sight and God longs to redeem us – to help us recover, uncover, and discover who and whose we are. Which is all we can ever be. No matter how hard an acorn tries, it is designed to grow into an oak tree, not a rose bush. You can only be who God, in Christ, made you to be.
Before Jesus was born, God gave the prophet Ezekiel a message for his people, “I’ll pour pure water over you and scrub you clean. I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed. I’ll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and walk in my ways” (Ezekiel 36: 26 & 27). God fulfilled that promise in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus causing St. Paul to announce, “anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God wants you to be you, and he’s willing to scrub away the grunge that has built up on your soul, to restore you to your true self. My parents were given a beautiful chair when they got married. Over the years the upholstery faded, wore and tore. It lost some stuffing. The springs broke. The wood was scratched. Recently, my brother had the chair refinished. It’s been restored to it’s original beauty. Now it’s a treasure. That is what God in Christ does for us. He strips away the dust and dirt of life as it is not meant to be and restores us to our original beauty. This is not an easy process. Imagine someone removing your heart and putting in a new one. That’s some serious spiritual surgery! Being scrubbed and stripped and sanded isn’t a gentle process. Jesus said, “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you” (John 8: 31) As the saying goes, “the truth will free you, but first it will make you miserable.” Why? Because it strips us down to the core of who we truly are, it causes us to confess our pretenses and ambitions, it humbles us. Our spiritual growth isn’t limited to devotional activities or good behaviour. Spiritual formation isn’t an optional activity for pious people. Everyone has a spirit. Everyone’s inner life is being shaped into something. Spiritual formation is the process by which your inner self and character are moulded. For the Christian, it involves the fashioning of all your being in every aspect of life by the truth-telling Holy Spirit. Often, we confuse the work and purpose of the Spirit with “following the rules”. We measure our spiritual life by external behaviours and devotional practices – how well I follow The Ten Commandments, how early I get up for my devotional time, how long I can spend in prayer. Paul reminds us, “the letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6) Jesus never said, “I have come that you might follow the rules” he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). We know we’re living this abundant life not when we follow the rules, doing what we “should” do, but when we follow Jesus cultivating a heart that longs to please God. When that happens, we begin to grow and evolve. We are free. And when we’re free, we’re our best and truest selves.
Paradoxically, when this is our orientation, we stop thinking about ourselves and we begin to flourish. Henri Nouwen was a priest and academic who taught at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame. He wrote 39 books, published in 30 languages. While we might all aspire to such heights, Nouwen came to believe these achievements weren’t helping him to become the person God wanted him to be. So, he resigned his professorial duties and became a resident priest at L’arche, which is a home for mentally and physically challenged people. He spent the last years of his life becoming a new creation. He went to L’arche thinking it was a place where he could help and love people, and discovered the people there helped and loved him. When word got out Nouwen would be at the hospital to visit a L’arche resident, he was invited to have lunch with the top brass. He accepted. When he arrived, the room was filled with excited professional people, but Trevor was not present. Nouwen was told it was against the rules. He responded, “the purpose of my visit is to have lunch with Trevor, so if Trevor can’t eat here neither can I”. They decided to make an exception. During lunch, many big wigs wanted to buddy up with Henri, others pretended to have read books they hadn’t, others stuck on how inappropriate it was for Trevor to be there, grumbled. No one spoke to Trevor. Then Trevor got up and proposed a toast. Everyone shifted in their seats. Trevor began to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it…” The discomfort was palatable, but Trevor’s joy proved contagious. Slowly doctors, administrators, PhD’s and distinguished clergy joined in. As the singing swelled and people smiled, their pretenses dropped, and they became their best selves all because Trevor was being himself – the “me” God created him to be.
When I was a student in Toronto, I took the bus. Normally, it was a miserable experience with crabby bus drivers and grumpy people pushing at each other. But there was this one driver who could actually smile. He greeted everyone warmly and asked how your day was going. If you came up short on your fare, he’d throw in a nickel. Everyone loved him, because he was free in his love for us. He drove a happy bus. Because of his joy in life, people connected. We made eye contact. We treated one another with respect and kindness.
At the core of a flourishing soul are the love of God and the peace of God. A peaceful, loving soul is hopeful and joyful, not despairing or irritable. When we are who God created us to be, we love others, we bless others, we bring joy and comfort with us wherever we go. We participate in Christ’s redeeming work by helping others be their best self and find freedom. We join the Spirit in creating “God’s world, God’s way” wherever we are.
When you come before the throne of God, God will not ask you why you weren’t Moses or Esther – he knows why. But I pray, he won’t ask you why you weren’t you. Turn to Jesus and let your real “me” be set free.