(An Online Message for September 13, 2020, based on 1 John 3:1-7)
It has newly occurred to me this summer that each day as I set out to face both the world and the challenges that await me there, I leave carrying a great deal of “stuff” along with me.
Mostly, it’s the things you’d expect: my wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses, maybe some pocket change; and of course, these days you don’t go anywhere without a mask! Just the everyday essentials for what you’ve got to do every day, right? But along with all the rest of it, I also carry with me something of much greater importance; and in fact, in your own way, so are each one of you: because each one of us, wherever we go and in whatever we do, brings with us who we are. Actually, in truth of fact, we carry with us several identities by which we are recognized and distinguished by others; and these are the ways that quite often serve to determine how we relate with those around us.
For instance, I’m Lisa’s husband, I’m my kids’ Dad; I’m also (and shall ever be!) my mother’s son (true story: one day last month while my mother was still in the hospital, I had to go to her bank; and not only did I not know anybody working there, nor had I introduced myself – and I was wearing a mask – the woman behind the counter immediately greeted me by asking how my mother was doing after her fall (!) …she told me afterward she knew who I was because of my eyes!). And besides that, I’m a son-in-law, a father-in-law and a brother-in-law as well as an uncle to several nieces and nephews. I am a proud resident of the Granite State, but most assuredly a native “Main-uh;” moreover, I’m an American citizen, a tax payer and a voter, thank you very much.
And to a great many people, I’m also identified, perhaps primarily, as a church pastor. Now I realize not everybody knows me that way but I have to tell you that over the years I’ve been continually amazed by the number of those outside of the churches I serve who do see me that way, and who approach me just on the basis of that: people (even strangers!) who just want to talk about faith, particularly, as of late, as it applies to these strange and tumultuous times in which we live. And I’ve never minded that, because I’ve always felt that part of my identity as “a minister” is to pastor to the larger community.
On the other hand, however, I have to be careful not to assume too much: once a few years back, on a day when I happened to be all dressed up in a shirt and tie, I was at a mall department store; and this elderly woman came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and when I’d turned around she said, “You! Do you know where the light bulbs are?” Now, for some strange reason, I went right into “pastor mode.” I simply smiled at this lady and answered, “Well, probably down near the light fixtures, but I don’t really know for sure. Why don’t we find somebody to ask?” To which this lovely lady replied in a huff, “You don’t know!? Don’t you work here?”
So I suppose there are times when that pastoral identity doesn’t come into play, but then again, there have been many other strange and powerful moments over the years when for some unknown reason I have encountered individuals who, right in that place where we were, at that precise moment of the day or night needed me to be… a pastor. These are the moments when this identity I carry as pastor, as a Christian, as a Child of God comes to the forefront, and it suddenly becomes clear to me that this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at this particular moment. This is who I am.
And I don’t share this with you this morning to let you know what a great person I am, but rather as a reminder to each of you that you carry this same identity. No, your job description may not list “pastor” as its title; and even as a person of faith, you might not always consider yourself to be particularly “religious” as it relates to what you do for a living.
On the other hand, though, perhaps for you there was that moment when a friend or a neighbor chose your shoulder on which to cry, and even as you were offering up some comfort, silently you were wondering why you, and not someone else! Or maybe it was when you found yourself in the middle of a conflict and were surprised to realize that yours had become the voice of reason and reconciliation; or in these strange days of pandemic, that you somehow became the example of hope and strength for the people around you! Or maybe at a time when it was far easier to turn away, you were the one to stand up and speak out for that which is only right and just, or you were the one who rushed in to risk love and care to those in need. Let me tell you, friends; if any of this applies to you – and I suspect it might – the truth is that you might be more of a “minister” than you think!
For you see, one of the hallmarks of our Christian faith is that as Christians, each of us serves as a reflection of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You may well carry a number of identities in your life – man, woman, spouse, parent, child, friend, worker, teacher, coach, retiree, student – but in and through all of these you carry a name that is given by God and which connects you to God! Just as a child is a reflection of his or her parents, you too are a reflection of your heavenly parent, a true child of God. That’s the “lesson” of scripture today: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” That is what we are! That is who I am, and that is who you are!
So often our mistake is that we assume we work our way up to become children of God. But our reading from 1 John this morning makes it very clear that we’re already there! We are God’s children now, a status and relationship that is the gift and consequence of God’s love, demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
And this is good news indeed! As William Willimon has put it, the best thing about all this is that this is God’s work, not ours. “I do not always feel like a child of God,” he says. “I do not always look like a child of God. God knows I do not always act like a child of God! But I am. I am one of God’s children not because of what I did or because of who I am but because God chose me, out of all the universe, to be his child.”
And so, in love, we have been chosen, you and I. We’ve been given a new identity, and that transforms… everything! But we need to understand that along with this new identity comes new responsibility. What’s the first thing we read in 1st John after this glorious affirmation of our being called Children of God? It’s that “no one who abides in him sins: no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Or, as The Message goes on to translate it, “Don’t let anyone divert you from the truth. It’s the person who acts right who is right, just as we see it lived out in our righteous Messiah.” In other words, a change of identity means a change of stance! Suddenly, it’s no longer appropriate to do that which goes against our relationship with God. From here on out, it’s going to matter what it is we reflect toward others; we’re going to need to show forth love and righteousness rather than sin and disobedience; for friends, whatever shines out from us is now a reflection of God!
To be child of God, you see, carries with it the weight of responsible living, of words that speak the true nature of one’s Christian faith, and actions that speak louder than those words; not that we always succeed at that.
Do you know that there are stores where you can actually rent an engagement ring? Seriously! I don’t know where this place is, but a few years ago I read an interview with the manager of a store in Boston that was created for just this purpose, and he explained that there are a lot of men who are thinking about proposing to their significant others, but aren’t quite sure if they want to follow through! And so, not to have make a full commitment of time or money, these men rent the ring for 30 days in order to make their half-hearted proposal! (Ah, romance!)
Well, folks, there are a great many people today who are living out their faith in exactly the same manner: half-heartedly, with no real commitment nor with any depth to what they believe at all. But you and I, who are called children of God – for “that is what we are” – and we are called to something more. We are called to be a reflection of God in all the ways that we speak and live and love; most especially in these days of pandemic when our “visibility,” so to speak, has been forced into the background.
I wonder what kind of commitment, what kind of love and compassion, what kind of faith people see when they look at us. I mean, it’s one thing to have a sign out front that says “We are the church no matter where or how we meet,” but how is that actually perceived out in the world? How are we seen, beloved? Do people see in us merely a half-hearted effort to be good, or at least good enough people; or do they see a shining example of righteousness; people who are not led astray by whatever seems easier or more expedient or personally beneficial for the short term, but who do the right thing in keeping with the Lord’s principles, standing up, speaking out and living what we believe even if that means taking a personal risk for doing so?
It comes down to our statement of faith, made real and “identifiable” in our identity as children of God…
… and that is what we are, beloved: in the work we do, in the ways we relate to one another, in the ways we seek to be faithful in all our dealings, in what we intend for the world. This day and every day, may that faith come shining through in every large and small happen, in every good word and every warm embrace. In all things, may our identity be rooted in the love of Jesus Christ!
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.