Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impersonate? Imitate? Participate?

Have you ever wondered WHO you really are? Do you look at that face that stares back at you in the mirror and wonder ... “Who am I?” What does it mean to be “me”?

The late Peter Sellers was the exquisitely talented actor of “Pink Panther” fame along many other movies. It was said that he entered into the many characters he played so completely that he largely lost sight of who Peter Sellers was ... he was an actor who portrayed other people ... and almost nothing more.

Who are you? What does it mean to be you?

These are “existential” questions ... questions that ponder one’s existence, including one’s emotions and thoughts, decisions and actions, roles and responsibilities, the meaning and the purpose of one’s life. Somehow the word “existential” kept popping in conversations this summer. When we take time away from our ordinary duties and responsibilities, existential questions are bound to bubble to the surface of our consciousness.

“Who am I?” What does it mean to be “me”? Who are you? What does it mean to be you? To ask questions like these means that we may not always be absolutely clear about who we are? They are fair questions for which we may not have easy answers.

The German martyr of World War II, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously asked his own existential question while in residence at the Nazi concentration camp where he was later hanged for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. “Who am I?” he asked with a deep ache in his voice. Many around him saw him as strong and self-confident which was quite at odds with the frightened and lonely person he knew himself to be. He felt like a hypocrite and a weakling mocked by what he called his “lonely questions.” But what saved Bonhoeffer, ultimately, in his existential agony was knowing “whose” he was, knowing that all of his self and his life and his purpose and his meaning—and even his lonely questions—ALL of these were wrapped up in the infinitely larger reality of God’s own being to which Bonhoeffer belonged.

It’s interesting to note that God’s own self-claims of identity stand in startling contrast to any existential mumbling or moodiness we might experience. You’ll remember that when God meets Moses at the burning bush and calls him to lead God’s people out of slavery, Moses asks God: “Who shall I say has sent me?” God says: “Tell them I am who I am has sent you.” Oooo-kaaay. Apparently God doesn’t lie awake at night lost in an existential funk. I suppose if you are, as Paul Tillich said, the ground of all being, “I am” is all the calling card you need.

It is the Apostle Paul who triggers this line of thinking with his words written in his love-letter to the Christians in Philippi. As with the God who called him, we rarely think of Paul as one who struggled with his self-identity or as being overly plagued with self-doubts. It was Paul’s uber-confidence in himself and his calling that was his great strength as well as a bone of contention for his opponents.

I have known people like Paul ... and when they get a bee in their bonnet ... when they become possessed with an idea OR the TRUTH, you’d best get out of the way if you don’t want their footprints on your back.

No ... self-doubting was rarely a problem for Paul. And certainly if there was a time for self-doubting, it would have come during his own time of imprisonment, for it was from prison that Paul writes his letter to the Philippians. But unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, far from weakening his confidence, Paul’s imprisonment seems to have strengthened it. I want you to know, beloved,* Paul writes in the first chapter of Philippians, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel ... and his confidence while imprisoned has given confidence to others to proclaim the gospel “with greater boldness and without fear.”

When you read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, his deep love and affection for them is obvious. Even from a prison cell, he bubbles over them as one lover to another. The young church in Philippi has been one of Paul’s successes and it is due, in no small part, to their mutual love for each other. Paul begins his letter to the Philippians saying: I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you ... Paul has planted a seed of the gospel in their midst and he continues to be amazed at its flourishing.

But even really good people and really good churches can have their struggles. It can’t ALL be “sweetness and light” ALL of the time. Honeymoons can’t last forever. Invariably a time comes when opinions can differ and equally good folk can stand on different sides on an issue. There is a small rift in the church in Philippi that Paul has caught wind of. It grieves Paul to think of there being disunity in his beloved church. And it worries him that the disunity will weaken their ministry and their witness.

And so Paul does what any wise parent does for her or his child: he reminds them of who and whose they are.

Paul begins by reminding the people of what they already have: they find great strength and encouragement in their Christian faith, they share deeply the empowering Spirit of God, and they have great compassion and sympathy for one another that flows into the world beyond their community. These are things we would be happy to have people say about this community of faith ... about Shell Ridge. Strong faith ... deep Spirit ... compassionate ministry. That’s who you are, Paul tells them. You are these things already. Now, he implores them, “Be yourself.”

... make my joy complete: Paul tells them, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in ... and here Paul comes to the heart of the matter. If REALLY you want to know who you are, he is saying, the One who has claimed you with an undying love and filled you with an unassailable hope, that One has modeled with his own being the lives you are to live and the selves you are to be.

It is this point of his love-letter to the Philippians that Paul takes a poem or a hymn that is already well known to the Christians of that time and places it at the center of his letter ... he uses it to re-ground the Philippians in their faith and their self-identity. Paul exhorts them with the familiar hymn:

Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God ...

Jesus is God’s humble servant ... self-emptying ... refusing to grasp at power ... humbled, obedient and serving even to the point of death ... and then raised up and exalted by the Power beyond all power ... and it is this humble and serving one—not the warriors and self-exalters, but the humble and serving one who will ultimately claim the allegiance of all earth.

Carlyle Marney was an old southern preacher whom I note from time to time. He spoke with a drawling, booming voice that was described as sounding like God’s ... only deeper. Willis knew Marney, I believe. Marney was smart and wise and compassionate. One of his special passions was for preachers like himself who needed to find their way back to the simple joy of ministry on behalf of the one we’ve just heard Paul describe with the hymn of the humble and self-emptying Christ. A well-known story about Carlyle Marney has him sitting with a group of pastors helping them out the kinks in their souls when an argument broke out. Even while serving the humble, self-emptying Jesus, preachers can be haughty and proud. The argument grew hotter and fiercer until Marney, who had sat silently until that point, said: “Friends ... friends ... do ... you ... love ... Jesus?” Do you love Jesus? It was all he had to say ... it was the only reminder he had to make ... to draw back into their midst the one who had been pushed out ... God’s humble servant ... self-emptying ... refusing to grasp at power ... humbled, obedient and serving even to the point of death ... and their model for Christian life and ministry.

Do you love Jesus? It’s Marney’s question ... it’s Paul’s question ... and I suppose it’s my question to you and to me. And at this point it’s neither my intention to get “heavily theological” nor “heavily evangelical” ... but simply to ask: Does the servant of God we know as Jesus draw you, compel you, move you, deepen you, touch you, change you? Do you love Jesus?

We often say that the simplest definition of what it means to be a Christian is “a follower of Jesus”. It’s hard to bind your soul to the soul of another—be it your life-mate or the person of Jesus—if LOVE is not a part of the equation. Paul would likely agree that as we love Jesus, so we move and follow and deepen our likeness of him.

For some of us it has been many years since we trolled our souls in the waters of baptism. And like the beloved subjects of Paul’s letter, we need the simplest of reminders of whom we love and who loves us. It is Jesus the Lord, Paul says, humbled and exalted, servant of God and the very bearer of God’s own name. Remember who you are, Paul says then and says to us now. Remember who you are.

Paul concludes this word of reminder and encouragement to the Philippians with an unusual phrase. And perhaps he offers it to his beloved friends lest they or anyone else get the wrong sense of what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus. He says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

H. Richard Niebuhr was a mid-20th century theologian and ethicist and brother to the more famous Reinhold Niebuhr. H. Richard Niebuhr was a very influential part of my own education and training as a pastor. A young evangelist once stopped H. Richard Niebuhr near the Yale campus where he taught and asked Niebuhr, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” the theologian thoughtfully replied. “When?” the evangelist pressed. “Every day,” replied Niebuhr.

You mean ... you mean there’s more? We’re not through?

Hmm ... apparently this “once and done” version of Christianity isn’t Paul’s ... the version where “dipped and saved” gets ‘er done, the version where having muttered the right sinner’s prayer and bought your soul’s heavenly fire insurance ... you can go back to being the same miserable scoundrel Jesus saved.

You’re not there yet, Paul seems to be saying. You’re on the way, the right path, but you haven’t arrived. You’re following in the right footsteps, but the journey continues.

I’m fond of quoting my dear friend and senior colleague James Chuck who like to say to people, for whom it’s true: “I like who you’re becoming.”

“I like who you are” Paul tells the Philippians. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. I say these words to you and to us in the least “self-congratulatory” way possible: Shell Ridge friends: I like who you are. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. Keep tending your souls ... keep deepening your being ... keep strengthening your service.

I lost a colleague recently who was a well-known and appreciated pastor. But it’s possible he was best known for something altogether different. He loved to impersonate Elvis. When the late Ted Keaton retired—Ted was a member of this church and a past president of our seminary in Berkeley, when Ted retired, my colleague put on a wild Elvis costume complete with rhinestones, bushy sideburns and white-rimmed sunglasses and crooned Elvis’ greatest hits to Ted’s great embarrassment ... and to everyone else’s enormous enjoyment.

As someone has noted, impersonators go to great pains to make people believe who they are not. Let us be very clear that Paul, in inviting us to be of the same mind as Jesus and to work out our salvation is not asking us to impersonate him. A better word that hits closer to Paul’s call is “imitate” ... striving to live up to the challenge of the person we look up to. Not impersonators of Christ, but imitators of Christ. Not a costume that we wear and words we only half-heartedly mouth, but seeking sincerely to live and work and speak and follow in the ways of Jesus.

We might add one more word to this trajectory of words if we wanted to take a final step. It would be the word: “participate”. The words means to share in ... to be involved in ... to mingle one’s self in. To “participate in Christ” is to not simply follow and imitate, but to join yourself to Christ ... to join yourself to Christ’s work ... to join yourself to Christ’s peace.

Perhaps we’re not all the way there yet. But we’re on the way, the right path. We’re following in the right footsteps and the journey continues.

Later today, those among us who are able will “participate” in Christ as they join other participants in a walk of hope on behalf of many in our world in desperate need. The CROP walk is only one of many ways we can participate in Christ with body, mind and soul. But it is a step along the way from imitation to full participation.

Shell Ridge friends, let me say it again: I like who you are. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. Keep tending your souls ... keep deepening your being ... keep strengthening your service.


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