Who Are We, Honestly?
A Sermon preached by Jess Cook
at the ordination of Matthew Messenger
February 29, 2020
Mechanicsville Presbyterian Church
Last June, in my sermon before the Presbytery to determine whether I would be approved for ordination, I told a story about a Facebook poll I’d recently conducted, asking folks for input about who in the Bible really seemed to “fit the part” of a messenger of God, based on projected norms of the time. I said it then and I’ll say now that I realize Facebook isn’t exactly a precise form of data inquiry, particularly if one is looking for a lack of bias: but, at the time my question was more for my own edification. I didn’t realize I’d be referring back to it as often as I have; but, here I am. And, well, I figure if God can use a talking donkey and the belly of a giant fish to get our attention, God can surely use Facebook as well. And, for what it may be worth, I did have a range of biblical scholars chime in, whose knowledge I’ve learned to trust.
From our collective knowledge, we came back with two characters: Nathan and Isaiah. I’m sure we could dig a bit more and find others who embody the projected norms for their time about what a follower of God is supposed to look like. But on the whole, it strikes me that of of all those in the Bible who deliver God’s message, who challenge systemic evils and call out empty worship, who embody God’s hope in the world, how few of them actually look the way people would expect a messenger of God to look. Mostly, our scriptures are filled with stories of a rag tag group of people throughout history who are less concerned with looking holy than with being holy. Even those like Paul, who spent much of their lives crafting themselves into the perfect image of what they thought they were supposed to be, were transformed, struck blind and then made to see with new eyes.
When Matthew sent me the passage he wanted me to preach today, I chuckled in the way I do in those moments when the Holy Spirit seems to be inviting me to examine something in a new way. Often, it’s when I’ve been overly reductive in my thinking and am being invited to take a kinder, gentler approach to myself or others. Like when I found out my exegesis ordination exam would focus on Joshua – the one book of the Old Testament I’d actively avoided digging into, and I said I’d be fine as long as the exam didn’t focus on the Battle of Jericho which, sure enough, it did. Or, like the time almost 15 years ago when I was leafing through a newly gifted Bible and decided to look for the passages often cited as reasons for the condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people. I didn’t even know at the time where those passages were, but I knew the ones most often used were in Romans. So, I turned to the New Testament and flipped through the pages, my confusion giving way to the realization that my new Bible was misprinted, and was missing a large section of Acts and all of Romans. That was the last time I went looking to the Bible for my condemnation. The Spirit has a way of waking us up, often challenging us to our limited expectations for what God does and who God loves or calls, opening our eyes to the ways we all fit together as a Body, each one of us an essential part of the whole.
Going back to my informal Facebook poll and our Scripture lesson for today, and to Nathan and Isaiah . . . While we’re told only that Nathan was “sent by God,” Isaiah’s call story is particularly interesting when viewed through this lens. Isaiah sees the Lord enthroned, surrounded by seraphim singing their hosannahs. And with the smoke of God’s glory filling his nose, Isaiah’s response isn’t joy or even fear, but mourning. “Woe is me!” he says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5, NRSV) The contradiction between what Isaiah has witnessed and what he knows of himself brings him to his knees. His confession invites a visit from one of the winged creatures, carrying a burning coal – a purifying fire – right to the source of Isaiah’s confessed uncleanliness. His guilt departs; his sins are forgiven, and he is ready to respond when God asks who will go and carry the holy message into the world. “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8b)
Isaiah’s call story is perfect for anyone who has felt the contradiction between their own sinfulness and God’s holiness. Which, as Presbyterians, I assume is a thing we have all experienced at time or two. This is even more essential as we seek to be the Body of Christ in a world brimming with tension, fear, and violence, this story is a challenge and an invitation to radical honesty, to embody the courage and not only face, but to name the things many of us have been taught to ignore.
Reconciliation is a word we often use in the church. The Good News made visible in the Gospels is that, through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are reconciled not only with a God whose every act is done in love, but also within ourselves, with our tradition, and with one another. To reconcile, though, means we must first be honest about the ways in which we are fractured – and then to trust that God will give us the resources we need, individually and collectively, to get us where we need to go. The kind of radical honesty is not for the faint of heart or spirit – it takes courage and endurance to not only face but also excavate the things that have prevented us from living into who we are called to be.
It also takes belief, not only in the holy, but also in our capacity to do the work God is calling us to do. As Dr. Cannon used to say, you’ve gotta be right sized. An inflated sense of self can keep our gaze focused on those seraphim circling the throne, locking us into empty worship and missing the living word of God as it becomes manifest all around us. On the flip side, if we make ourselves too small, focusing only on the ways we fall short, we can miss God’s presence within us and all of the ways we are uniquely equipped to do God’s work in the world.
I don’t think I need to tell anyone here that we are living in a time when this kind of radical honesty is difficult. We step into conversations armed with our convictions and wearing our defenses like armor. We often conflate comfort and safety, silo ourselves in echo chambers, reducing those who may disagree to a collective “them.” We give into our shame over what we’ve said or done in the past. We give in to our fear over what may happen in the future. So we stay quiet, we keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, and in doing so we gradually become spiritually weak, lazy; our worship become rote. We forget who we are to God and to each other.
The thing is, I’ve often found more often than not, the fear doesn’t go away. So we have to do it afraid. Over time, though, the practice of doing hard things gets easier. Like a muscle we begin to use after years of inactivity, the pain eventually gives way to strength, we find we are more flexible and resilient, able to things we once saw as impossible. When faced with difficult circumstances or hard conversations, we find ourselves more grounded, less defensive, better able to see ourselves and one another not as strangers or the enemy, but as beloved children of God. “They” gradually becomes “we” as we are all transformed into the living, breathing, Body of Christ in the world. Swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. We practice war no more.
I’m sure there have been moments for all of us lately when the desire to silo ourselves among like-minded individuals has been strong. But, the Gospel challenges us to remember the ways in which we are connected and we are all called to work for a world where all of God’s children know they are seen and loved and able to live into a life of abundance. Even more, if we take seriously the idea that we all bear the divine image, then every person we meet becomes an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God.
One of the things I connect with most in the Presbyterian tradition is the way we understand sin not only as an individual act, but as a systemic problem. We confess our sins together because sin isn’t something that begins and ends with each of us, but is pervasive among and within all of us. So, while it would be simpler in many ways to maintain our own individual checklists of misdeeds, the Gospel calls us to see not only the reason for those misdeeds, but also the ways in which they impact others. Being honest about our sinfulness means holding ourselves accountable to the ways in which we have failed to be the individuals and the church scripture says we can be. If we take seriously the idea that we all bear the divine, then every person we meet becomes an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God.
As church-going people, it challenges us, especially, to see the ways in which our traditions have been misused to justify atrocity after atrocity. It means naming the things we’d most often like to leave unnamed, recognizing that sometimes keeping the peace may avoid conflict in the present, but it tears us apart in the long run, festering like an open wound. Looking around today, we are in the midst of a time when these wounds have gone ignored for too long; and, no matter which side of the political or ideological divide you stand on, the stench is noxious. And thank God for that stink. Because no wound can be healed if it remains unacknowledged.
And this is what I most love the Presbyterian understanding of sin, because when we talk about sin, we have to talk about it within the context of grace. When we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, we do so to both welcome them into the community and as an outward sign that God’s grace is offered to us even when we do not have the capacity to ask for it. If we can fully grasp the depths of this kind of love, it makes honest conversations about sin much easier because they are couched in an understanding of how deeply we are loved.
As the body of Christ in the world, we are called to carry God’s abundant love out, to carry the grace we have been so freely given to those around us – not only to the ones we love, but the ones we don’t. This kind of work is how our love and worship takes form when we go outside these doors, and as it is intended to mold us and to help us create a space together where God dwells not only within us but among us. Our worship means nothing if it isn’t lived out in our lives. And if our worship is preventing us from being the Body of Christ in the world, it’s likely time to revisit what we are doing in our worship.
In a few minutes we will break bread and share communion together. And as anyone who’s spent more than a little bit of time with me can likely attest, I love talking about the sacraments. Last year, while serving communion at Ginter Park Presbyterian, I was happily breaking off bread and placing it in people’s hands when one woman took her piece, broke it in half, and handed it right back to me. “You gave me too much.” She said. “Here, take some back.” Unsure of what to do, I continued serving. At the end of worship, while shaking hands with folks at the back of the sanctuary, another congregant approached me – this one a 5 1/2 year old named Gabe. Holding a quarter of the remaining communion loaf up to me he asked, “would you like to remember Jesus?”
Yes, Gabe. Yes, I do.
What we do I worship matters. And I do’t was to over-simplify any possible solution to the messiest of the world today. But I truly believe that if we begin by remembering our baptism and by breaking bread together, we will begin to understand more about who we are – not only individually, but together. And that – that carries out into the world. As the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, we are called to his ministry of reconciliation and we are called to believe that what we do in here matters when we step outside.
And if our walls are the thing keeping us from seeing ourselves as the body of Christ in the world, it may be time to ask ourselves what those walls are really doing. We are all children of God – woven together in the Spirit, abundant and embodied in every single person we meet. And we are invited to eat and to share the meal together, not just here with one another, but everywhere and with everyone we meet. When we begin to do that, we will begin to see with honesty the holy all around us and to acknowledge our own finitude. In that moment, may we be ready to say not just here I am, but here we are, Lord. Send us.