Monday, May 10, 2010

Sermon for May 9, 2010

Reflecting the Image of God

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

In a large temple north of Thailand’s ancient capital, there once stood an enormous and ancient clay Buddha. Over a period of five hundred years, violent storms, changes of government, and invading armies had come and gone, but the statue endured. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack. It would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took a light and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. Now uncovered, the golden Buddha draws throngs of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

What might happen if we trained ourselves to see beyond our cracks to the shimmering beauty that lies beneath? Paul describes this experience in 2 Corinthians 4 as “treasures in clay jars.” He says the treasures are in clay jars so that you won’t get attached to pride. You will keep a proper and restrained view of yourself. You won’t treasure a particular version of yourself that might not be true — for example, the self who stops traffic with youthful good looks, or the self who fascinates the world with middle aged charm, or the self who dazzles the world with senior wisdom. These stories we tell about ourselves are not reliable measures of self worth. These various “selves” we masquerade aren’t so unique. We are all just slight variations on a theme. The real measure of worth is what Paul describes as “the all surpassing power of God” — treasures in jars of clay. Think about it as beauty beneath the cracks.

You won’t ever see the beauty beneath the cracks in others or in the world, until you can accept the cracks in yourself. You won’t learn to see the image of God in others until you learn to see it in yourself. Think of yourself in a new way. Do not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world, especially what the media or other people tell you about yourself. Think of your body in a new way. Look at the wrinkles on your face and see only character lines. Look at your spare tires and see bay windows with a panoramic view of life. Look at the stretch marks and see a road map that tells the story of your journey. Look at the extra flab on your arms and see wings that can soar like eagles. Learn to recognize the image of God in yourself, and then you will be ready to see it in others.

I once heard a story about a young kid named Jake who always wanted to be just like Billy Widdledon. He walked like Billy walked and talked like Billy talked. But then Billy Widdledon began to hang out around Herby Vandeman. He walked like Herb, and talked like Herb. It messed with Jake’s head. He was walking and talking like Bill Widdledon, who was walking and talking like Herby Vandeman. Then it dawned on Jake that Herb Vandeman walked and talked just like Joey Haverlin, and Joey Haverlin walked and talked just like Corky Sabinson. Jake thought to himself — Here I am walking and talking like Billy Widdledon’s imitation of Herby Vandeman’s version of Joey Haverlin, trying to walk and talk like Corky Sabinson. And who do you think Corky Sabinson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, Dopey Wellington - that guy who walks and talks just like me!

A lot of us, myself included, fall for the trap of seeking change at the surface and then feeling surprised that we don’t feel any better at a deeper level. If you want to lose weight, but start from the assumption that your extra weight is an imperfection, then you are bound for disappointment. If you use Botox, but start from the assumption that your blemished skin is ugly, then you are bound for disappointment. If you begin a workout regime but start from the assumption that you are not good enough without it, then you are bound for disappointment. If you dye your hair, but start from the assumption that your natural color is not beautiful, then you are bound for disappointment. Now, here is a liberating truth. If you have come to see the constant and beautiful image of God within, the masterpiece that is you, then you can work at changing the surface effects with freedom. You can celebrate the lost weight, the toned arms, the smooth skin, the died hair, with a great sense of achievement, but all the time knowing that this too will pass and when it does you are no less of a person.

Here’s something we might want to try: What might happen if we stop all our self-loathing. Put aside everything you see in yourself that you hate. Seek the image of God first, then worry about smoothing out the wrinkles, if it even matters to you anymore. Maybe once we see the image of God, we will spend our time and money elsewhere.

Maybe you have a head full of impossible goals. Maybe they have been in your head since you were a child. The media creates an image of what beauty looks like, and it is an impossible image, reflected by none other than those touched-up and photo-shopped into perfection. We know they are fakes, right? Those imperfectly perfect models with the blemish-free skin and stretch-mark free abs. Their waists have been slimmed, their heads enlarged, their rear ends slimmed. We know the pictures have been retouched. But advertisers know we aren’t going to buy magazines with blemished cover models. On the February cover of British GQ, actress Kate Winslet looks absolutely terrific. So who’s complaining? Kate Winslet herself, who says these were not her thighs that appeared on the cover. The worst thing is this. We know that’s not her. We know that advertizers altered her picture for the cover. But then what did they write in the ad line? That’s what’s pervasive and horrible. “Kate Winslet looks sexier than ever. Slim, elegant and self consciously flirty.” The editors are saying that the reason Kate Winslet looks sexier than ever is because she’s slim. Kate Winslet actually has a curvy, real woman’s body. But we get the message loud and clear: you are only sexier than ever if you’re slim. That’s insane

In another story, Self magazine, which champions accepting one’s “true self,” published a thinned-down photo of the singer Kelly Clarkson, with a headline pushing “total body confidence.” Self magazine’s editor, defended the photo as “the truest we have ever put out there.” Did you get that? It’s not a true image, but it’s getting there.

People don’t look like this. People are flawed. It’s why we’re people. We’re flawed.

Imagine if beauty was measured according to the image of God. What percentage of people in the world might recognize the image of God within, no matter how they define or experience that image of God? Don’t fall for the beauty myth. You are so much more valuable than the media would have you believe.

I came across a Washington Post article on the beauty myth, written by a blind man. The man describes the way he experiences beauty:
Occasionally, I allow myself to imagine that I see the . . . faces that we all suspect lie just below the surface. But in any event, I know you differently than do your hand mirrors or photographs. One thing I won’t know is whether you are, in the ocular sense of the word, beautiful. It’s not that I’m inured to beauty. Imagine that you’re talking to a woman who is sitting across a table from you. When you look at her, all you see is a shimmering cloud of light . . . You are able to observe people as mystical emanations of divine radiance . . . I get turned on by your accent, your fragrance, your laugh, your enthusiasm for almost anything. Strictly speaking, I don't even know what my wife looks like. Instead, I live for the thrill of the touch of her lips, and my hands are privileged to see her. My wife lives in a luminous blue corona of light, and that is good enough for me.
Isn’t that marvelous? He senses “mystical emanations of divine radiance.”

When we realize that we are created in the image of God, cracks and all, we can experience salvation. The idea of salvation rests on the notion that there is a rupture between God and us. We live in the world of the rupture, where every creature walks alone, feeling split off from the Whole, cut off from holiness and goodness, severed from the Source of life and power. Where is the all-surpassing power of God that Paul talks about? Let’s listen a little earlier in 2 Corinthians. Paul writes these words:
For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (3:18).
The Greek translation of the word image is eikon. God longs to restore cracked eikons into glory-producing eikons. To be saved is to be renewed in the true image of God, as women and men in Christ. To be saved is to have our relationships restored between God, others, and the self. We are free to be new creations – people who sparkle and shine, and reflect God’s glory. And don’t you worry. God’s light shines through you. Through cracks and wrinkles, through spare tires and stretch marks, through faults mistakes and regrets, God’s light shines through you.

So get rid of some self-loathing today. Look beyond the masks and the false images of your self that you think will win admiration from others. Look beyond the beauty myths and ridiculously unreachable standards. Look beyond any poor estimations of yourself. You may be surprised to find God in a place where you never thought God would be. You might just see the image of God shining through you. Then you will also be able to see the image of God in the world around you.

• Reflecting the Image of God.
• Austin Garrett Ward. .

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