Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why You Can't Be Yourself By Yourself
(and other disappointing good news)

SFH homily for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January, 26, 2014.

“Be yourself!” her mother whispered. She made her way to the door. A band of friends waited for her from their various perches atop some daddy’s red and cream Buick Roadmaster station wagon, recently equipped with practicing subwoofers not original to the vehicle. She smiled the smile of polite disengagement and turned to meet her friends. Her mother’s counsel wasn’t new. She always said this. Every time. Every single time she embarked on anything new - every trek out the door - “Be yourself,” Mom would say.

“Oh Lord,” she would think. “Let me be anything but myself. 

Once upon a time her mother’s gentle exhortation had brought her peace, had given her surety. But increasingly she’s come to believe she knows herself, and she isn’t sure at all she likes the self she knows. She thinks of insecurities, her perceived imperfections, and also her failings. Even, and especially, her failing to see beyond her imperfections. 

In fairness to her mother, good parental encouragements are hard to come by. Parents have got to say something when their children leave the house, and even she had to admit that a parent could do worse than “be yourself.” Witness the countless, mindless and ranting parents assaulting their children with “encouragements” of all kinds on otherwise enjoyable Saturday afternoons from their aluminum bleachers in little league ballparks. The deadening voices of control, tinged with fear, launching children into age-old battles with the failures of their forbearers. 

No, one could do far worse that “be yourself.” In fact, she was pretty sure - when she was honest - that she wanted this more than anything, on some level. Whether being one’s self was possible was another question altogether. After all, if it was possible to not be one’s self (which the exhortation to be one’s self clearly implied), then being one’s self was not an obvious course; it threatened to become an inaccessible riddle, impossible to unlock from the inside. A cave, all in darkness, in which one blindly gropes past a litany of fantasies, distractions, and endless self-deceptions. As one writer puts it, ”I never ask my friends: How are you? Because they don’t know.” She turned to meet her friends.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 

Moments later, it’s the same thing one more time. This time, two brothers up and leave Dad in the boat. They’ve been mending nets all morning. They love the good work of mending. It’s a love their dad has helped cultivate in them, and they love him for that, too. But just now, Jesus is calling, and he’s telling them he’ll make them fish for people; that the joy of their hearts and the skills of their fingers have not been lost on the Messiah of God. That is, he doesn’t see the fishermen and promise to make them businessmen. Jesus sees them as they are, and he calls them to follow him as no more and no less than themselves. And more truly themselves for following him. He loves that they fish! “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Believing, they follow.

These four men have been caught in the promise that he will make them fishers of people. That he will make them true. That he will somehow dispel the darkness around them, and they, in the light, will become who they are. Now, as then, the invitation to follow Christ is the invitation to become who you are; to be in Christ the true self made true by nearness to him. It is the uniquely Christian conviction that you can’t be yourself by yourself. 

We become ourselves in the moment we risk leaving the boat to follow Christ. 

We don't follow alone. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will send his disciples out into the world two by two. Clare pointed out at Wednesday's Bible study that it’s not just in the sending, but here too, in the calling - at the very beginning - that he gathers them in twos. It’s seemingly part and parcel of being with Christ: the communion of saints; the happy relief of holy friends with which to travel; the strange and sometimes smelly company of the people called the Church; the imperative of forgiveness and even love of enemies. Because you can’t be yourself by yourself. Because your real self is not a riddle to unlock, but a gift in Christ to receive and lift up to God for the life of the world.

This rhythm of receiving and offering is of course what we do, what we practice, every week in this space. Every week is a dramatic reenactment of the gospel account in which Jesus fed 5,000 folks, spread out on the lawn. Lots of characters in that story, but we play the part of the boy who had some loaves and fishes, and everyone knew that it wasn’t enough. Like a young girl unconvinced that her self is worth being. The disciples apologize for the boy’s scant offering. “It’s all we can find,” they mutter. But the boy makes no such apology. He simply says, “Here.” He offers and does not diminish the gifts of which he finds himself in possession. Likewise, in the Eucharist, we offer our gifts. Gifts of prayer, offerings, bread, and wine. The offerings, bread, and wine are signs and symbols of whatever work we do to earn our bread. So we lift up our jobs, our vocations - as students, musicians, software designers, priests - we lift up our fortunes and triumphs and burdens and joys and everything and anything that might tempt us toward possession of our identity. We are not our own; so we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies. We lift up all that we love. Like Andrew and Peter, we abandon the boat.

I wonder what you love to do as much as Andrew and Peter loved to fish. Where is the joy of your heart and the skill of your fingers? Do you see that these things have not been lost on the Messiah of God? That is, he doesn’t see the engineer and promise to make him an English major. Jesus sees you as you are, and he calls you to follow him as no more or no less than yourselves. And more truly yourselves for following him. He loves when you do what you love! “Follow me,” he says to Peter, Andrew, the others. Gifts on the table, laid bare in the presence of God, “Lift up your hearts,” the chaplain will say. And you, hearts toward heaven, will answer, “We lift them to the Lord.” And in that moment, we will together be the People whom, from the foundations of the world, we were created to be; foretaste of the Kingdom in its fullness. Because your real self is not a puzzle or a riddle to unlock, but a gift in Christ to receive and lift up to God for the life of the world.

"Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.


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