(a sermon for November 5, 2017, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 John 3:1-3)
I remember his words as though it was yesterday: “I realize,” he said, “that a lot of people look at me and think I’m nothing but a loser; and I know I’m considered by some to be the black sheep of the family.”
This sad but painfully honest assessment of things came in the midst of a late night phone conversation a number of years ago with an old friend of mine from high school (this guy was always calling me in the middle of the night!); and though, as that old friend and as that old friend who happened to be a pastor (!), I immediately sought to assure him that neither God nor the people who loved him thought of him that way, truth be told I understood what he was talking about.
For you see, though my friend was a good and fun-loving guy, and one who was always determined to put his best foot forward no matter what, he’d also had a very rough life, starting with the father who walked out on him when he was a little boy and continuing on from there. Even as an adult it always seemed as though trouble and heartache were following close behind him at every junction of life. Several failed marriages combined with some often bitter custody issues with his kids, moving around from place to place trying to eke out a living while dealing with a long series of medical problems that cost him a great many jobs over the years: this kind of thing just seemed to go on and on with him. And yes, to be fair, some of the problems were of his own making, or at least were complicated by some very bad choices made along the way; in fact, it could probably be safely asserted that for most of his life, this man was “a day late and a dollar short,” in every sense of the expression! And so, to the casual observer, it might have indeed seemed as though my friend was something of a loser and a black sheep; but interestingly enough, when my friend made this confession to me in the wee hours of that morning, it turned out that he wasn’t done speaking!
“I know I’m considered by some to be the black sheep of the family,” he did say; but then he added, “but you know what? I’ve come a long way! I’ve grown, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m a much better person than used to be; and despite everything, I managed to help raise three good kids who love me. What’s better than that?” And as he went on, it became clear to me that he understood something that a whole lot of people never come to grips with: that while his life had been hard in so many ways, it was also good in others; and the best part is it wasn’t over yet! That’s the reason he called me at four in the morning, you see; he was excited to let me know that he was going back to school; that he was going to get his degree; that he wanted to teach, to help young people in need; and now he was determined to show his now adult children, and everybody else (!) that “if the old man can reach his dream, then so can they.” And as his friend, I wished him well; after all, life is not supposed to be something that we’re resigned to live out, but rather an adventure to be experienced: an evocation of a work in progress inspired by God’s own movement in our lives.
I still remember after hanging up the phone with him thinking of an old, admittedly lesser-known John Denver song that my friend and I knew well back in those days:
“Come, dance with the west wind and touch all the mountain tops,
Sail o’er the canyons, and up to the stars.
And reach for the heavens, and hope for the future,
For all that we can be, not just what we are.”
(from “The Eagle and the Hawk” by John Denver)
For all that we can be, not just what we are: life is so often an intermingling of what is and what might be, of the actual and the potential, of the realized and unrealized parts of ourselves. In other words, there’s always more to us than what meets the eye, more than others can see, more than we can even see in ourselves; our “true identity” might well be veiled by the challenges that life thrusts upon us, as well as by our own fears and self-doubts. The hope for all of us is that over time and experience, by learning and through grace, each of us eventually comes to recognize and understand who he or she truly is, and thus embrace the whole meaning of life.
This also pretty much encapsulates our journeys of faith as well, does it not?
It’s there in our text for this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Basic to our understanding of the Christian faith is the truth that in God’s love, revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are identified before all creation as God’s own children, holy and beloved; and what that means is that whoever else we are considered to be in this life, or whatever other label has been placed upon us and we carry around with us as we go, who we are, first and foremost and forever, are children of God! But the best part is that that’s not even the end of the story; for if we read on in this passage from the 1st Epistle of John you find there’s a twist to this incredible affirmation: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” It turns out that you and I, who have this sure identity as children of God, still have much to discover about who we are and what we are yet to become; and that is also good news indeed!
As Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, a Lutheran pastor and writer from Chicago, explains it, “What you are now is not the end. You are a work in progress. And the exciting part is, you don’t know what is possible until you open up to God’s possibilities.” Faith, Seyenkulo goes on to say, is all about God-inspired and God-led possibility, “and so the Christian life is [by definition] a life of possibility, waiting to be revealed.”
And there’s great precedent for this: think of the disciples of Jesus who knew themselves to be his followers, but until that resurrection experience began to reveal itself and the Holy Spirit began to move in and through the reality of their lives they could not possibly imagine themselves to be the purveyors of his good news in the world. Or think about the people who heard that good news from those disciples: I’m thinking of a story, for instance, from the 3rd chapter of Acts about a man regarded by everyone around as a beggar; a nameless, faceless indigent. But upon being healed by Peter and John in the name of Christ, this beggar became something different, quite literally “walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8) as he went first into the temple, and then out to a new future… full of possibility!
For that matter, think about someone like my old friend; someone you know whose faith has so profoundly affected his or her life that who that person is now stands in sharp contrast to the person was before. Maybe you can even see yourself in that regard; the point is that this love of God is the catalyst for true and ongoing transformation; it creates unlimited possibilities as to what can come as God’s own future unfolds.
What we will be is not yet revealed… all we know for now is that when Christ is revealed, that is, when the kingdom is come and all of Christ’s promises are fulfilled, then “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And…” – here’s a key verse (!) – “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Or, in the beautifully rendered words of The Message, we will have “the glistening purity of Jesus’ life as a model for our own.”
For what comes between what we are and what we will be is the journey; and how along live on the way. Think of it as a journey of self-discovery on a divine scale. On the way from who we already are as God’s children to what we will be by God’s intent and purpose, we are being called to grow; spiritually, and by extension ethically, morally and socially. We are being called to turn around from worn pathways and old ways of thinking and being; so that we might truly walk in newness of life after the manner of Jesus.
I love the story that Juanita Austin tells about her brother, who works as an accountant, and who is, as one might expect, up to his eyeballs in tax returns every April. Ordinarily, Austin writes, this would be a sure cause for stress and strain, but this year when she asked her brother how he was doing, he replied with great enthusiasm, “Great! I’m doing just great! I love this!” Though her first instinct was to call a doctor and find out if her brother was in fact seriously sleep deprived (!), she asked him why he was so visibly excited by his job. And he explained that on that particular day he’d been able to help this widow on a pension to increase her monthly income, “so that instead of barely scraping by she would be reasonably comfortable. What her brother had as a gift – a knowledge about taxes combined with a [new, faith centered] compassion and desire for justice – he [was now able to give] to her.”
I love this story because like all of us who are children of God, what this man, this tax accountant (!), will be is yet to be revealed—and yet by the movement of his life we can begin to see a hint of what’s to come, a glimpse of the very purity of Jesus’ life in his own life. Well, my question for each of us today is what people might see in the movement of our lives here on Mountain Road; as Christians dwelling within a decidedly non-Christian culture; as persons and a people of faith dealing with the very real challenges of life here and now, yet on a journey full of possibilities for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
It seems to me that in faith, you and I are ever to be giving thanks for “who we are” as children of God; but we also must never lose sight of “what we will be” by God’s own intent and purpose. For between here and there, now and then, lay all the wonderful and heretofore unimagined possibilities that God is setting before each of us. It’s ultimately what will help us to soar as the eagle and the hawk, to “reach for the heavens, and hope for the future.” And it will be that which will reveal to us some of the “glistening purity of Jesus’ life” in everything we are and seek to be in this life.
Where we will go and what we will be; that is yet to be revealed. But we do know who we are, beloved; and as children of God, I hope and pray that we are ready for journey of faith and discovery they lay before us. Because the possibilities… they’re endless!
May we be blessed on the journey… and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c.2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry