Here's the sermon. It changed a little bit as I spoke it. But here is the text. And I post it here because I want to remember the things I learned while prepping for this thing, and the things I'm learning as a result. I post it because it's a moraine, condensing a lot of good stuff that needs to trickle into the rest of life, slowly. (if I remember that geography lesson properly...also the thoughts are slow like glacier speed so the analogy can continue...) And because it's collecting other good stuff as I continue to reflect, and in a week or two---whenever I get around to it again---I'd like to take this space to work through the next layer of thought. Thinking is a slow and painful process right now so yeah.
Grains in a Loaf, Stars in a Universe, One in a Million.
Eucharist Preaching Guild Aug 11 2013, Justine Lodder
Invocation: Philippians 2:1-5
I wonder if anyone else here has as much trouble as I do with trying to nail down how to stand out and really be yourself. You’re a firework. Come on, show em what you’re worth. Make them go oh, oh, oh! As you shoot across the sky----that doesn’t rhyme? Annnd, shooting across the sky means you’re standing kind of away from the others (you are a firework—you’re going to burn people if they get too close) but it probably also means you’re about to burn out and crash, doesn’t it?
I had to look up the lyrics to Katy Perry’s song, and there’s actually a lot of good stuff in there! If you’re having a bad day or an identity crisis, sometimes you do feel like a plastic bag drifting in the wind, like all the doors are closed—and these words can encourage for sure. But I think there may be danger in the firework image. If we’re believers, if we are citizens of God’s Kingdom we also have to consider our individual roles as a grain in a loaf, a star in the universe, a brick in the wall, the tiniest dot of sand on the beach among our brothers and sisters. We are individuals, each of us is a separate person, and yet we are not islands----and, come to think of it, if we were islands we would simply be the above-water pieces of one very large, very pimply piece of land which lay just below the surface of the water, so we LOOK like we’re alone but really we’re all cut from the same cloth.
Can you be you without your environment?
With all the talk this summer about identity and value and how you see yourself and how people see you and how God sees you and who you really are... I don’t know how to deal with it all. I really don’t.
Do you know? When someone asks you who you are, to say a few things about yourself, how do you decide on what kind of answers you can or want to give them? (let’s hear?)
… I tend to reply based on who I’m talking to and if I think I can be honest with them or can joke around with them…based on my mood, based on how I’ve been feeling about myself lately, etc…
I’m gonna be straight up with you—I had a really shitty week recently. Tired of life, tired of being a grouch, tired of being tired. And then I set up a profile on ChristianMingle.com, maybe I thought that would help. I had such an interesting time trying to answer ChristianMingle’s personality-testing type questions. It asked me if I’m a trendy person (uuhh define trendy), if I have any money-saving tips I’m dying to share. (on a dating website?), the classic ‘where do I see myself in 5 years’. They’re silly questions, and it feels silly to answer a computer program in hopes that it will help find me a soulmate. (in the immortal words of my little brother: SupesAwks. That is short for: super awkward.)
But really. It also felt silly just because I was beginning to realize—and this is part of the supesawksness—I don’t even know how to answer those questions! I’m 28! How did I get here? How can I be true to myself if I’m not even sure how well I know that self? How can I begin to entertain thoughts of my future, any career options and all that jazz? How can I interact with strangers, with family, with potential employers, with you—we read some of Philippians 2 as an invocation a few minutes ago; how can I follow Paul’s directions there for treating all the other stars in this universe if I am too busy having trouble answering ChristianMingle’s silly little questions about little old me?
We’ve looked this summer already at how we’re fed an image of value and success to which we somehow need to aspire in order to have the right kind of identity in this world (you know, a firework. The identity that identifies with the celebrities, or with the Joneses, or with Supermom across the street, or with the Beamer-driving executive, or with the thriftiest of fashionistas perusing Art Crawl). We work so hard to have it all together, to stay young and relevant, to have the most interesting Facebook profile (or, ChristianMingle profile). We get all caught up and burnt out chasing the things we think should make us happy because other people are happy pursuing those things…and we wear our identity like crowns of jewels and thorns. Or we get all upset about being too tired to locate pieces of our disappointed selves all over the place, too tired or distracted or misled to actually know who we are in a frantic pursuit of happiness and success.
So after some reflection, I think we may need to step back a little bit. Or maybe just I do, and I get to take you with me because I’m currently up here speaking… heh. I hope I’m not the only one here who really just needs to begin with a definition of identity?
Also, disclaimer: I’ve got nothing specifically Psych related in my education. Art School and Seminary, both of these realms may have brushed shoulders with psych-related questions, but I really don’t feel qualified—or like I have enough brainpower these days—to speak in depth about identity. I’m fascinated by all the intricacies of how our selves are comprised or how we comprise ourselves and how those comprised selves comprise a crowd.
I trust, though, that there really are no coincidences at all involved in Preaching Guild’s having landed here in identity and value for the summer, and my own identity figuring over the past few months. Some of the questions we’ve already aired in this Ordinary Season series have been extraordinarily timely for me personally (probably you too, I bet!), so while thinking about and sitting down to write this sermon has been ridiculously difficult, it’s also been an amazing journey and I’m excited to see what comes of it.
If we were to look up the word identity, we’d find things that say,
1. The state of having unique characteristics held by no other person or thing,
2. The individual characteristics by which a person or thing is recognized. Synonyms are things like sameness or oneness.
Identity is a compilation of characteristics specific to one person or thing. Your identity is made up of your personality, which is characterized by things you do or say (and think and feel and assume and …) which probably follow a recognizable pattern and can be grouped with others who have similar characteristics. According to the Spectator, people at Eucharist seem to be all cool and hip and young, so if you’re those things at heart you might identity with this crowd. That makes sense, right? Do I sound a little crazy for thinking about this so much?
So I was actually stuck here for quite a bit.
I’ve been slowly working through a book I’d picked up called Learning to Dream Again—Rediscovering the Heart of God. (maybe getting into this book was the more positive or proactive decision that came out of my shitty week…not that signing up for ChristianMingle isn’t positive or proactive, it’s just maybe I’m more proud of this move) It’s by a theologian and ethicist named Samuel Wells. For a while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity College as well as Research Professor of Christian Ethics there. I really appreciate his work because he talks about the interactions between Christians as if they’re a big deal (uh they are) but he takes a pastoral approach, gently leading the reader through Scripture to explain the heavy responsibility involved in all of our interactions with God and with each other.
I had just read a chunk in there about Psalm 139, which when you read it is all about how much God knows the psalmist, David. Like, KNOWS. David can’t get away from him. Every corner of the earth and the sky and all over time.
“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely O Lord.” –Guys, I don’t even know half the words that are on my tongue before they’re out! Flip. God KNOWS them COMPLETELY. He KNOWS!
In the Hebrew language, the word used here is Yada, which is ‘to know by experience’, ‘to perceive and see, find out and discern’, in the depth of its meaning it is a more intimate knowledge than just your average ‘ya know’. Like the difference between a candlelit dinner date, and scrolling through a Facebook newsfeed. You can sit on a couch by yourself and be comfortable and not spend time with people but sort of know facts about them via FB, but you can really get to know someone over time spent well in shared adventures. Yada is used a lot over the course of Psalm 139, 5 or 6 times I believe, and every time what God knows so intimately is expounded upon. God is everywhere; we can’t escape his love, and we can’t escape his knowing us.
Wells talks about how the speaker in this psalm discovers the difference between our knowing and God’s knowing—David has gone on and on about how God knows so profoundly and amazingly, and then suddenly in verses 19-22 he does a 180 and starts ranting about how much he hates those who hate (or don’t know!) God. Just as an aside—I did a little research to see if these people really did hate as much as this psalm says. And David’s language is as strong as it sounds. If you’re not for God, then I guess you’re against him. But I don’t think that David is setting an example for us here in terms of what it means to love God in the presence of those who don’t—this is the point where David recognizes how little even he knows his God. He cuts off his rant with anther 180, inviting God to search his heart yet again and to lead him in the way everlasting, to better know and love the Lord.
Wells goes on to say "With us [humans], knowing and loving are separate, and there’s always the fear that if others really knew us, they’d have a power over us that they could use to hurt us, or that they’d see through us and cease to love us, or treat us like enemies (the way David had thought he should be doing). But God’s knowing is different. God’s knowing and loving are indistinguishable. There’s never a moment when God knows but doesn’t love, or loves but doesn’t know. That is the gospel we can hardly begin to imagine. God wholly knows because God wholly loves; and God wholly loves even though God wholly knows."
So I was wrestling with this for a bit, and then on Tuesday this week, I was ridering a place called Kennedy Commons, at the 401 and Kennedy Rd out in Scarborough. You can usually find my crew there on Mondays until about 2:30 or so in the summer...if you wanted to show up with ice cream or something for us…just kidding it’s really far away. And we were there on Tuesday this week because Monday was a holiday and I’d spent it sitting on the Patio at Johnny’s Coffee, reading Samuel Wells!
Anyways. I’m ridering along on a really steep slope, wondering what’s the next step in this sermon, praying about it, seriously I’ve ridered this place a million times so can multitask like this…when I realized! Seriously---such a rush! –that maybe we can draw this knowing vs loving dichotomy thing all the way back to the fall. Walk with me!
In the story of creation back in Genesis, there’s this tree. It’s called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. PS the word for knowledge comes from the root word for know, which we talked about earlier. Someone who knows has knowledge. In the story we read that after he had created them, God told Adam and Eve they could eat from whatever tree they wanted except this one tree. So of course guess what happens—there’s only one rule to break and break it they do. Eve takes the fruit after the devil convinces her that she (and Adam) can be like God, knowing good and evil.
Who has power? God has power. Eve wants to be like God in the power department, and thinks she can get there by eating this particular fruit, so she can know stuff and have power, as if God is being a jerk by keeping knowing stuff and having power away from humans by knowing things we don’t, and like that power is up for grabs. Little is she aware apparently that she and Adam can already be like God because they’re created in his image—are already imaging him, reflecting him in perfect relationship with their fellow human(s) and with God—and with the potential at that point for more perfect relationship. Nothing to do with power, except that God’s love IS his power and they had that too. But instead, Eve wants to be like God with the power that knowledge brings.
So from this perspective there are two ways to be like God—can follow his direction, trust him and love him and be in a relationship with him and get to know him this way, or we can try to gain knowledge and control and power over God. Silly. I think maybe, just as the English understanding of ‘to know’ is nowhere near as deep as the classic Hebrew understanding is, so Adam and Eve’s understanding of knowing captures only pieces of what knowing means for God.
We were made to live in love, in relationship that mimics the perfect One-ness of God who is three persons but is actually so perfectly related in one. But instead of choosing to trust and obey, to be ourselves in relation to God the way God had intended, we choose to know stuff in relation to God, according to what we think knowledge gets us. We’re on a constant quest to know ourselves now. This has been a huge push in the world of psychology, to know and understand Self…and if you feel like you don’t know yourself, you might know a sense of lostness maybe, like you’re drifting around like a plastic bag on the wind. Unidentity crisis.
But what if we’re not even called to KNOW, though!? We’re called, in the ten commandments, to what? (sing it?) LOVE the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Sure we need to know him, but first we need to love him. And we need to love our neighbor as ourselves. Does it matter how much you know of your neighbor before you love? No, you gotta love him. Or her. Does it matter how well you know yourself? No. Well, sure, it’s important to know ourselves (and ya you should maybe know your neighbour’s name or something at least). But knowing who we are is not the most important thing. God didn’t say KNOW the Lord your God with all your heart… or KNOW your neighbor as yourself. Successful people in the world today may have striven to know themselves well, but I’m convinced we are all missing the point and are SO unsuccessful if we do not first understand how to love who we are. In that loving and caring for, you will come to know how to love yourself better, and good old classic Hebrew knowing will follow. Not as a power over, but as a fond familiarity. Your identity is as loved by God and able to love in return.
I dunno, I just found this so incredibly freeing. Such a flipping relief. Knowing who you are is not prerequisite to loving who you are. We need to know and love that he has put us in our particular places, and given us particular roles, and particular neighbours to love as well.
Originally I thought I was going to preach on Philippians 2:15ish, where the phrase ‘shine like stars in the universe’ comes from. I thought I was going to talk about the ethics involved in having a large group of individuals doing life together with common or not-so-common goals, with undivided hearts. (actually those were just the first words that hit me in the face and started this preaching journey for me this summer, and I liked that because I wrote about this sort of thing at the end of my masters with regards to ethics of worship music and crowds and individuals. Also why I was looking up Samuel Wells again.) But I think this conversation still does fit in the field of ethics, because how we understand our identities both individually and corporately—which in this conversation simply means as one large body—also informs how we treat each other. But how we live among each other informs how we understand our identities—both individually and corporately.
The other day at Preaching Guild Steve pointed out something really interesting about the word identity. It comes from the Latin word ‘idem’ which would have been used in counting…so if you’re counting and inventorying groups of distinct, separate items, you’d say idem, idem idem. But the thing is, each individual item is only complete in its place in the larger group, which is only complete when each item is in its place. So even the history of the word identity, which seems so personal, is so deeply related to how we understand the crowd we’re in.
I love how cyclical that is, and it brings us back to an earlier question—can you be you without your environment? Can you be you without your community? Can you be you without the universe you shine in? Can you be you without Jesus?
I can’t help but think about Ichabod at this point. From Alex’s story last week. How much happier with himself would Ichabod have been had he known just how pleased his Father was to give him that name?
And so—this is from Philippians—“whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Then…I (Paul) will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel… If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, to build up your own identity, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
In this, he gave up his body as a loaf of bread to be broken for us, that we might be broken with him and united as many grains are in one loaf. And this wine is his blood, poured out for the salvation of the world.
Therefore God, the Father, exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So I can invite you to the table! Know that you are loved. Know that we are loved, and because of this, we can share in this meal and can extend the gift of Jesus’ life to each other.