Define yourself …

Philippians 3:4b-14

Who are you?

Who are you?

How do you define yourself?

When I was a child, back in the ‘60s (and yes, I’m telling you my age now) we used to define ourselves by our ethnicity … who was Irish, who was Italian, who was French, who was English. And while we might have been nice about the terms we used to define ourselves, we certainly were not nice when it came to defining others.

By the time I was 7, I think I knew every derogatory term out there. You name an ethnicity, and I knew the name.

And I used it.

Because that’s what we did in those days.

We used names – horrible names – to define each other.

I am one-half French, one-quarter Irish and one-quarter Russian. I got called names right along with the rest of my friends.

And I thought that was normal. Because that’s the way the world was in those days …

Thankfully, the world has changed somewhat in the last 40 years, to the point where a lot of the youths I know don’t even know what those derogatory names mean, much less use them.

Which is a good thing on every level, I admit, but in the long run, it turns out those names never meant a thing anyway.

Because those names? They don’t define us. Our ethnic heritage, like so many other attributes of our lives, is nothing more than an accident of nature.

What defines us … the only thing that defines us … is that we are beloved children of God, created in God’s image, called into being by God’s love for us … for each of us.

Everything else?

Whether we’re tall or short, black or white or Latino or Asian, blue-eyed or brown-eyed? The countries we come from? The countries our ancestors came from?

They don’t mean a thing.

Because they really are but accidents of nature.

Think about it: You don’t get to choose where you are born. You don’t get to choose the color of your skin or your eyes or your hair. Where your parents came from? You have no say in that. So these things … which so often seem so important to us … really do not define us.

What defines us … what really defines us … is that we are beloved children of God.

This is what Paul is trying to teach us this morning in his letter to the Philippians.

He is writing to a community – a new community – in Philippi, a city filled with people from all over the world, with Roman citizens and slaves, with Greeks and Romans and Jews and Africans and any other nationality you can think of. In that community, you kept to your own, as it were. Sometimes, your own was defined by your faith or ethnicity. More commonly, it was defined by your trade … so stone-layers belonged to an association of stone-builders. Tent-makers hung out with tent-makers. Each form of labor had an association of some kind, and that association was your community.

But the community to which Paul was writing was breaking those boundaries. Tent-makers and stone-layers and everyone else was all mixed together in this new community of Christ followers, this community that broke all the boundaries that normally fenced the people in in those days: boundaries of race and religion and work and citizenship.

Paul is telling the Philippians that it was OK to cross those boundaries, because they didn’t define the people any more. What defined them, Paul says, is their faith in Christ Jesus, which taught them, as they had never been taught before, that each of them was a beloved child of God.

To make sure that the Philippians understand this idea of radically realigning their lives, of radically and dangerously going against the grain that Roman society demanded, Paul lays out his own credentials first. He was, he says:

• “Circumcised on the eighth day” – meaning according to the Law, meaning, he came from a Law-abiding family.

• “A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” – meaning that he was descended from Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, meaning that Paul’s parents were not some Johnny-come-lately Jews, but were descended from a long and faithful line of Jews.

• “A Hebrew born of Hebrews” – again, Paul was not a convert. He was born into the faith.

• “A Pharisee” – meaning that not only had he studied the Law with the very best teachers, but he could interpret the Law and then tell you how it applied to you.

• “A persecutor of the church” – remember, this is Paul, who once was Saul, who stood by and held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen, the first deacon to be martyred. This is Paul, who once was Saul, who was on that road to Damascus precisely so he could arrest these Christians and haul them back to Jerusalem to be tried, found guilty and stoned to death just like Stephen.

• “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” – This is Paul at  his arrogant best: I knew I was in right relationship with God.

Paul is explaining that he knew exactly who he was, defining himself through worldly standards (and yes, even the Law was, in Paul’s estimation, a worldly standard). And he was darned proud of who he was in the world.

But now, he says, now … all those definitions are gone. They no longer matter.

Because now, he says, he defines himself solely as belonging to Christ, he names himself a beloved child of God, saved through Christ, obedient to Christ, following Christ, every moment of every day.

Those old definitions? he asks.

They are nothing but rubbish. Garbage. Basura.

Because Paul knows, to the core of his being, that he belongs to God, and he defines his belonging through Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we are just like Paul.

Like him, we have been asked to give up our past – glorious or desperate, it matters not – asked to give up our worldly identities so that we can find, so that Christ can define us.

Everything in the past? Not important.

Because our future lies in the future, with God.

Now imagine what our world would look like if we took this definition to heart, if we really defined ourselves in this way.

How would we treat ourselves? What would it feel like to know that the single most important part of our identity is being the beloved?

Defining ourselves in God means that we accept people for who they are – beloved children of God – and then we act as though everyone – everyone – actually is a beloved child of God.

Imagine what the world would look like if we actually lived this way. If we actually dared to be as bold as Paul, to define ourselves not by the world’s standards, but by God’s standards, and then acted that way?

I can tell you what happens: The world looks at us and says, “You can’t do this. You’re a dreamer. You’re a fool.”

But what the world has to say about this is not important, because the world doesn’t get to make those decisions. God does!

And God, who created us all in God’s image, declares that all of us belong, that all of us are equal, that all of us are beloved.

So let’s do this:

Let’s be radical go out into the world today – and every day after today – and let’s live as the people we truly are: God’s.

And let’s treat everyone else as the people they truly are: God’s.

This is the greatest gift we can give to the world: To stop defining ourselves by accidents of nature and start defining ourselves by the only thing that matters:

We are beloved children of God.

Full stop.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bailey’s Crossroads, Va., Proper 22, Year A, 2 October 2011.

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Matthew 26:14- 27:66

In the past two weeks, I have received news of the deaths of two men who were beloved to me, news that shocked me and caused tears to form immediately in my eyes and in my heart.

One friend was the priest who raised me up to priesthood, who in his sometimes gentle and sometimes gruff ways formed me to be the person and priest I am today. Last Sunday morning, I served at the church where he celebrated for more than two decades, and for the first time I was privileged to sing the Eucharist at the table where he taught me so much. As I sang, I thought of Bob, and I smiled, and later told others, “Now I know why he loved to sing at that table so much – it’s holy.” By the time I finished singing the Eucharist, unbeknownst to me, Bob was in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

Three days later, he was dead.

The other man was a friend who had counseled me through some tough times, advised me through some marvelous times, and who could talk baseball with the best of them. Russ had served as the chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia for more than two decades and was beloved by all in that diocese. Whenever we met, he would stop whatever he was doing, turn his full attention to me, bestow that marvelous Southern gentleman smile upon me, and wrap me a hug. He had cataract surgery two Tuesday mornings ago.

At home, resting up afterwards, he suddenly died.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Bob and Russ since they died. I know who they were in my life, but as I grieve their loss, I am left to wonder who I was in their lives.

This, my friends, is an important question for all of us to contemplate, this question of who we are. Who are we in each other’s lives, in God’s life, in Jesus’ life?

It is an especially important question to ask today, on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, as we move from exultation to devastation, from life to death.

Who are we – who exactly are we – in this Holy Week?

Take a moment and consider:

Who are you in this Holy Week? …

Are you one of the people cheering Jesus on as he rides into Jerusalem, waving palms and throwing your cloak on the ground, pinning all your hopes on this man, proclaiming him the Messiah?

Is that who you are?

Or are you one of those in the crowd five days later, caught up in the bloodlust, screaming in a frenzy, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

Who are you in this Holy Week?

Are you Judas, a faithful disciple – and make no mistake, he was faithful. Jesus called him, Judas followed, and Judas was with Jesus for a substantial portion of his ministry. Judas was there for the miracles and the healings, the preaching and teaching, on the road and in the Temple. He was present at the Last Supper.  And then … he betrayed Jesus … because Judas’ vision of the Messiah blinded him to the vision of the Messiah.

Judas wanted a Messiah all right … but Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Judas wanted.

Is that who you are?

Or are you Simon, now called Peter, the Rock, who like Judas followed Jesus when Jesus came calling, who like Judas sat at table with Jesus and broke bread with him, who like Judas was in the synagogues and on the street, who just like Judas failed Jesus at the most critical moment, and who just like Judas betrayed the Lord …?

Is that who you are?

Perhaps you are Caiaphas, the High Priest, threatened by this upstart, ragged, itinerant preacher, worried that if he continues to preach this scandalous gospel of his, your people might die as a result?

Or maybe you are Pontius Pilate, who is already having a hard time controlling these stubborn Jews who refuse to honor Caesar (for God’s sake, couldn’t they just go along to get along?), worried that if you don’t do something with yet another so-called Messiah, if you don’t satisfy this bloodthirsty crowd, you will lose both your job and your head?

Is that who are you in this Holy Week?

Are you Barabbas, the murderous zealot already condemned to death and suddenly set free, asking no questions, but taking your freedom and running for the hills?

Or are you Simon of Cyrene, the man who came to town to sell merchandise for the high holy days and who suddenly is dragged into this drama and forced to help this man you’ve never met, about whom you know nothing?

Perhaps you are one of the disciples, so committed to the Lord that you gave up everything to follow him everywhere – except to the cross?

Or are you one of the women, risking your very life to stand at the foot of the cross, knowing that Roman law said you, too, could be executed for the crime of simply knowing Jesus?

Maybe that’s who you are!

Maybe you’re one of the thieves crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left, mocking him to the end, because in the end, all three of you are going to die anyway, and you might just as well get in your licks while you can, right?

Or are you one of the Roman soldiers who beat, taunted and crucified yet another unruly Palestinian causing trouble, not caring about who this man is because you are just following orders?

Are you possibly one of the people in the crowd – a chief priest or a scribe or an elder – taunting Jesus because he refuses to save himself, even though he saved so many others?

Is that who you are?

Are you the Roman Centurion and his cohort, feeling the earth move and seeing the rocks split and the tombs come open, and in great terror proclaiming at the last, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Or are you Joseph of Arimathea, helping to take down the body of your beloved Jesus, and laying him your own tomb, wracked with grief because all your hopes have come to an end?

Who are you in this Holy Week?

….

On this Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, in this sacred week of our lives, I can tell you who you are. I can tell you who we are.

Each of us, at some point in our lives, is every single one of the players just named in this incredible drama.

At some point in each of our lives, we have rejoiced and shouted the praises of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest! And at some other point, we have rejected God … or wondered where God was … or cursed God … or betrayed God …

At some point in our lives, we’ve all put our families, our wants, our needs, our desires, our dreams ahead of God. We’ve made God wait and we have presumed to tell God that God is wrong …

The good news is, those given moments? They are not God’s final answer to our question.

Because God’s final answer is this:

We are beloved children of God.

We can be faithful stalwarts one moment and falling-down failures the next, but it won’t change the essence of who we are, the core of our being.

We are God’s beloved.

And God loves us so much … so much … that God not only sent his only begotten son to live with us, God sent his only begotten son to die for us. For each of us. For all of us. That’s God’s final answer to our question of who are we in this Holy Week.

My two friends, who died so recently, Bob and Russ?

They taught me a lot of things. They taught me that I wasn’t always perfect, that I didn’t always do just the right thing, that there were days when I fell down and days when my friendship faltered – but because they loved me, they never gave up on me. They never abandoned me.

The same is true with God, and this week, this Holy week, is the week when God teaches us the same thing.

We will not always be perfect – even the disciples weren’t.

We will not always do the right thing – even the disciples didn’t.

We will fall down – like Caiaphas and Pilate.

We will falter in our faith – like Peter and the frenzied crowds.

But God does not give up on us. God does not abandon us just because we have failed in some way, great or small.

As you try to figure out who you are in this holiest and most important week of your life, remember the lesson that my two friends taught me.

Remember that no matter what role you play – that of faithful follower or brave witness or even miserable betrayer –

Remember:

God already knows the answer to our question:

We are God’s beloved.

Amen.

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse, N.Y., on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

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