Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon for November 18, 2007

Who do you say I am?
Matthew 16:13-23

A man was looking for a job and he noticed that there was an opening at the local zoo. He asked about the job and found that the zoo had a very unusual position to fill. Apparently, their gorilla had died, and until they could get a new one, they needed someone to dress up in a gorilla suit and act like a gorilla for a few days. The man was to just sit, eat, and sleep. His identity would be kept a secret, of course. Thanks to a very fine gorilla suit, no one would be the wiser. The man tried on the suit and sure enough, he looked just like a gorilla. They led him to the cage; he took a position at the back of the cage and pretended to sleep. But after a while he got tired of sitting, so he walked around a bit, jumped up and down, and tried a few gorilla noises. The people who were watching him seemed to really like that. When he would move or jump around, they would clap, and cheer, and throw him peanuts. So he jumped around some more and tried climbing a tree. That seemed to really get the crowd excited. They threw more peanuts. Playing to the crowd, he grabbed a vine and swung from one end of the cage to the other. The people loved it. Wow, this is great, he thought. He swung higher and the crowd grew bigger. He continued to swing on the vine, and all of the sudden the vine broke. He swung up and out of the cage, landing in the lion’s cage that was next door. The man panicked. There was a huge lion twenty feet away, and it looked very hungry. So, the man in the gorilla suit started to jump up and down, screaming and yelling, “Help! Help! Get me out of here! I’m not really a gorilla. I’m a man in a gorilla suit. Heeelllp!” The lion quickly pounced on the man, held him down and said, “Will you shut up! You’re going to get us both fired.”

Sooner or later we all get found out. It’s only a matter of time before who we are becomes obvious to everyone. Why is it that we find it difficult to be who we really are? Sometimes I wonder if we are ashamed. Shame is an experience of the eyes. If I were to trip and fall flat on my face in the privacy of my home I would not feel ashamed. If I fell flat on my face in front of you all, I would be embarrassed. Shame is a dreaded, deep-seated, long-held terror come true; what we have feared has actually happened. We’ve been found out. We are frauds in a gorilla suit. The dark secrets of our lives have been exposed. Who we are and what we do comes into the light and makes us vulnerable to others’ opinions.

We tend to blame wounds to our self-image for most of the pain in our lives. We were called lazy when we forgot to make our beds, ugly when we failed to get a date, stupid when we did not excel in school. Each comment attacked our worth, we felt exposed and undesirable, and then–get his now–we began to hate whatever part of us caused the pain. If it’s our nose, then we will hate our face; if it’s our voice then we will whisper; if it is our past then we will hide it away and run the opposite direction.

Many of us have a fear that if our dark soul is revealed, we will never be enjoyed. No one will want us. We will be unloved and unlovable. Have you ever had a fight with your spouse or a good friend that ended with sharp words and angry accusations? You’re mad, and you turn away from the person you love in fury. You are so distant, the other person might as well be on the other side of the universe. After a while, you realize that your words were immature and cruel. And you think, “I wonder if this person will ever talk to me again.” You want to say you’re sorry, but it seems empty. Something holds you back. Shame fills your body like cold water rushing through the hull of a sinking ship. You are afraid of rejection–scared that the person you love will be disgusted with who you are.

Does shame have to govern our lives? Today we heard a scripture in which Jesus asks an identity question. Who do you say I am? I listened to that question, and began to wonder, do we take time to really know one another, or do we hide, ashamed what will happen if someone gets to know the REAL you? Look around you today. Each person here has a story – heartaches, wounds, summits of great success and valleys of defeat. There are stories of victory, stories of rejection, and stories of trying to make it through each day, one day at a time. Every one here has done something that he or she has regretted – each of us has times when we wish we could turn back the clock.

Imagine this scene with me. If you are comfortable, I invite you to bow your heads and close your eyes. This may be the only sermon you ever hear where the preacher actually tells you it’s OK to close your eyes and relax. Take a deep breath. Feel the air coming into your nose, your mouth, your lungs. Let your body relax a little. Breathe deeply. Be aware of your body, any feelings you may have. Let any thoughts or feelings go, and just focus on the moment – on the breath. Now I want you to imagine yourself in the scene from today’s Gospel reading. You are on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. Peter is leading the way, as usual. You are bunched together with the followers of Jesus. Jesus is a little way behind the group, walking by himself. You decide to drop back and walk with him for a while. You slow your pace, and soon you and Jesus are walking side by side.

Take time to notice what Jesus looks like to you. What do you think his voice might sound like? What color are his eyes? What does he wear? What does he smell like? What would you want to say to him?

As you walk along, Jesus speaks. He calls you by name and asks what’s on your mind. You remember a prior conversation between Jesus and the disciples when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say I am?” You decide to ask the same question of Jesus. Even tough it sounds strange, you ask it anyway. “Jesus, who do you say I am?”

Imagine what Jesus looks like when he smiles at you. He says, “That’s an excellent question. Listen very carefully to my answer. All that I am about to say is true. I want you to pay special attention to the words I use to describe you – the ones you really like as well as those you have trouble believing. Remember, every word I say is true of you. Now listen with your heart, as well as with your mind and ears.

You are chosen and dearly loved by God.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
You are God’s child, prized and treasured by God.
You are my friend.
You are a saint.
You are forgiven – past, present, and future.
You are and always will be an object of God’s love.
You are a citizen of heaven.
You are a temple of God – God dwells within you.
You are a new creation – a new person.
You are God’s coworker.
You are God’s workmanship – a masterpiece, unique in the entire world.
You are righteous and holy – in you there is no flaw.
You are the chosen one of God.
You are dearly and uniquely loved by God.
You belong to God and God belongs to you.
You are the one who will always be with Christ.
You are a source of delight to God.

When you are ready, you can open your eyes.

I did not make these affirmations up. They are not my inventions. They are the words of the Bible. In all my studies of the Bible, I have never heard Christ say, “You are fat and ugly and people hate you.” I have never heard Jesus say, “God thinks your lazy, and stupid and you have a big nose.” I have never heard Jesus say, “You will never amount to anything.” You may have heard those things, but never from the mouth of Jesus. What do you think? Is it difficult to believe that the wonderful things Jesus said are true about you?

Jesus speaks a new message of love to us. You may have been taught that you have to meet certain standards in order to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are completely forgiven and fully pleasing to God, and you no longer have to fear failure.

You may have been taught that you must have the approval of others to feel good about yourself. Jesus says something different. You are totally accepted by God. You no longer have to fear rejection.

You may have been taught that those who fail are unworthy of love and deserve to be punished. Jesus says something different. You are deeply loved by God. You no longer have to fear punishment, nor must you punish others.

You may have been taught that you are what you are – you cannot change – you are hopeless. Jesus says something different. You have been made brand new and complete in Christ. You no longer need to experience the pain of shame.

This time of year, we are always reminded to count or blessings to be thankful. So, while you gather with family and friends, and eat turkey and potatoes and stuffing, we give thanks. I want you to remember something. You are a source of delight to God, and God counts it a blessing to have you around. God is thankful for you.

Sources:
Jeannie Oestreicher & Larry Warner, Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry (El Cajon: Youth Specialties, 2006).
Robert McGee, The Search for Significance (Houston: Rapha, 1990).
Rick Marshall: Life Connections (Claremont: P&F Publications, 2004).

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