ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 26, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
SERMON ON THE MOUNT: HONOURING SELF
Matthew 5: 4, 13 – 16, 33 – 37; 6: 22 – 23; 7:6
Narcissism is defined as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. On the surface, and narcissism never runs too deep, it appears we live in a narcissistic age. However narcissism is certainly not new. The only thing that’s changed is our technology. Selfishness, self-centredness, self-adulation, and self-promotion run contrary to the teachings of Jesus who said,“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). To voluntarily deny one’s self, one needs first to have a sense of “self” to deny. Jesus also said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22: 39) which implies that we should love our self. Jesus was clear that God loves us. If God loves us, aren’t we compelled to love our self? So which is it denial or love? To answer that we need to distinguish between our ego or false self and our authentic or true self. When we ask about honouring our self, we’re speaking of the self God created us to be – the self which was made in the image of God. As Christians we believe that our true self is set free in Christ. So, while Christians are called to choose self-denial over self-absorption, we need to ask what is a healthy view of our self? What did Jesus teach us about loving and valuing our self?
Let’s begin with The 2nd Beatitude in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) This simple statement says a lot. Often it’s read at funerals to comfort those who’ve lost someone dear to them. “Mourning” could also refer to the grief we feel in moments of deep repentance, or when we look at the state of the world and the suffering people endure, or when we’re aware of the injustices and inequities that give some people power while oppressing others. Whatever we mourn, this beatitude reminds us we’re not alone in our sorrow; God sees us, cares for us and comforts us. Because God honours our heartaches, we’re given permission to validate our feelings. Our feelings of grief and of joy, anger, anticipation, boredom, fear, compassion, guilt and any other feelings we may have. Feelings are part of our humanity; they’re a gift from God which help us monitor our life events. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they’re just what we feel. Acting on them, of course, can have moral consequences and getting stuck in (i.e. choosing) negative feelings such as bitterness is destructive. But the feelings themselves are part of the abundance of life God gives us. Feelings can help us navigate through life. Along with feelings this Beatitude encourages us to appreciate our experiences and to treasure our memories. In validating our emotions, life events and memories, we validate and honour our self.
Jesus continued with words of encouragement, telling us we’re “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (5: 12 & 14). Notice Jesus doesn’t justify or explain this statement. There’s no why or how – it’s fact. You are … Our true self is flavourful and appealing, bright and beautiful. We’re called to be visible. We’re made to use our talents, gifts and abilities; our personalities are not meant to be hidden away. Sometimes life events or people cause our light to diminish. We’re made to shine. We’re also made to bring out the best in others, just as salt brings out the flavor of food. We aren’t salt for ourselves but for the health of the earth and the well-being of all. Back in Jesus day a lamp created a small flame and while soil needs some salt, too much leaves it infertile. We’re to allow ourselves to shine without overwhelming, blinding or blocking out the light of another. Being bright and flavourful doesn’t mean we scream out “look at me!” “love me!”, it means we’re open, generous, loving and willing to add something to the world. As Christian people the source of the light we shine is Christ. We’re called to be visible in living, working and proclaiming our faith. Our self is set free to be an expression of God’s love. We’re called to bring a taste of the life we have in Jesus into the lives of others.
In chapter 6 Jesus has an odd saying,“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (6:22). Physically speaking, if your eyes work, you see clearly and have light. If not, one’s vision is clouded or dark. In the same way, if our inner spiritual eye (our soul or self) is working, our whole spirit is illuminated. If not our souls are in darkness. A healthy spirituality is defined by clarity, purity and holiness. John Brown writes, “Holiness doesn’t consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervours, or severe austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.” When our inner eye is enlightened we’re generous, compassionate and able to bless others. When our inner eye, is darkened – if we’re miserly or envious – we may curse people with the “evil eye”. The person who extinguishes kindness is darkened by sin and is consigned to a dim existence. Often we blame our past, our life experiences or others for our spiritual darkness. To blame is a sign of a spiritual illness. Life is hard but when it comes to who and how we’ll be, there are choices we can make. Will we be healthy people who bless or unhealthy people who afflict ourselves and others with misery? A whole self has an inner light within which shines out for others.
Jesus also gave some advice about being people of integrity. In the ancient world vows were accompanied by oaths. One might promise something and swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem or one’s head much like we would “swear on Grandma’s grave”. Oaths were sort of fluid things – some were binding or unbreakable and others not. Rather than go through a ritual that meant nothing (and might even misuse the name of God) Jesus said, “Let your word be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’” (vs. 37) Jesus was far more concerned that we be true to our word than make a big fuss but lack righteousness. This teaching reminds us of the importance of boundaries. Boundaries are what separate our self from others. Boundaries keep others from invading, hurting us or going too far. When we value our self we are able to make clear decisions of which we take ownership, and then follow through on them. We don’t say “yes” when we mean “no” or do things out of pressure or to please others. Our only concern is to please God and we do that when we show the strength and consistency of integrity. A man went into a chicken place and bought dinner for himself and his date. Instead of giving him the food, the server handed him a bag with the day’s profits of $800 in it. When the couple realized the error, they returned to the store. The man was an instant hero. The manager wanted to call the newspaper to share this amazing story of honesty. But the man objected. Leaning in he said, “The woman I’m with is not my wife…she’s uh, somebody else’s wife.”
The last saying of Jesus we’ll look at today is also a bit cryptic, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine…” (7:6) Jesus’ Jewish audience no doubt heard this as an admonition to stay away from Gentiles and to keep their religious truth to themselves. At times there’s wisdom in holding our spiritual cards close to our chest. Not everyone is receptive to the message of Christ. Many people seek to denigrate it and crush us in the process. We’re to be protective of the things that are valuable to us – not physical things but spiritual things. That includes our self which is loved by God and precious to him. You are cherished by God; so much so that Jesus died for you. In Christ, God sees us as sacred. Along with the theme of boundaries, we’re to guard our true and sacred self. As with other things we value, we don’t leave our self so unprotected that people are free to use or abuse us. We don’t stay in relationships that are unsafe or where we’re in danger of being trampled emotionally, physically, sexually or spiritually. We’re to defend ourselves from those who are cruel or who would take advantage of us. Your true self, the “self” God created you to be and God longs for you to recover, is like a holy pearl. It’s your job to shelter your self. You will only do that if you value your self. Your self is worth the very blood of Christ. Treat your self as someone sacred.
“Finding one’s self” is touted in our society as the purpose of life. But self-discovery is like a dog chasing his tail. We go in circles and never quite grasp what we’re after. Finding or becoming one’s true self can’t be done apart from God. It’s only as we discover God and his light illumines us that we can know ourselves. The closer we get to God, the closer we get to our self. Seeing ourselves, through Christ, with the love God has for us, we discover a self that loves and honours God and others while validating our own emotions, experiences and memories, shining our light, bringing out the best in others, living with purity and integrity, setting boundaries and cherishing ourselves. The challenge is not finding ourselves – God will help us with that. The challenge is: When you do find your true self, what will you do with your self?