A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost, preacher at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 25 Sept 2011.
Lectionary texts for Year A: Exodus 17:1-7, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9 (6), Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
First sermon after a month of leave and temporary duties. Hasty and rushed, and written after the fact, but a pleasure to preach the gospel again. H/T to the Kiwi Canon for the idea. MP+
My friend Gene Packwood put me on to this excellent piece by Sharon Hodie Miller on aithenticity. Her starting point in this essay is the prevalence of the word “authentic” and the claims to autnenticity by so many politicans and celebrities today. This prevalence leads Miller to claim that “authenticity is near to becoming a core … ethic” at a time when so many of us feel manipulated and lied to.
I think Miller has a good point. In an age of media spin and of a growing gap between the superrich and the rest of us, it does seem that those at the top are anxious to claim the legitimacy of being real folks, just like the rest of us. I found it fascinating this week to note a CBC documentary on the singer Celine Dion, who is anxious to tell her public that she is really just an ordinary working parent: “I am a mom, like other moms. I am a working mom, like other working moms.” This claim may be hard to digest when we note that Ms. Dion makes megabucks singing in Las Vegas, but its fascinating that she needs to present herself to us this way, as if the reality of personhood is the one thing her public persona cannot give her.
Not that being “authentic” is a bad thing. I can’t think of anyone who would be displeased to be described as “authentic”. Authenticity is reality, without the semblance of masks or posturing. It is the matching of word and action that we call integrity. In very geneeral terms, being authentic is being true to one’s self.
What does it mean to be authentically Christian? I ask this question because a frequent accusation made against Christians is that we are hypocrites, who speak piously but act in such a way that undercuts the values we proclaim. The sexual misdeeds of clergy or of Christian conservative politicians, the greed of televangelists, or the indifference of affluent congregations to racism and poverty are common facts that explain this perception.
Miller offers two helpful thoughts about being authentically Christian. The first is that it takes time and practice. Our word “disciple” comes from the Latinword for student, and being a student of anything worthwhile takes time. In this congregation we have soldiers, nurses, teachers and parents, and you all know that you don’t get good at those crafts overnight. Miller’s second point is that authentic Christianity only comes from its namesake, Christ.
Miller writes (and this is a long quotation but worthwhile) that authenticity “can only be had in Christ. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. . . . The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. You real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. . . . Christ will indeed give you a real personality.”
Lewis makes this statement as one who understands the deceptiveness and destructiveness of sin. Only God knows who we really are — that is, who he created each one of us to be. Sin leads us to construct alternative versions of ourselves, selves we prefer, selves that are more comfortable, selves that bring us the most glory. We may try to construct selves that will honor God, but even our best intentions will be perverted when working off a manmade blueprint.
In Christ, however, we become our true selves. God opens our eyes to our sins, to the self-deception, to the things in our lives that are not of him. Then he transforms us, conforming us to the only perfect human being who ever lived. In Christ, we stop operating according to the constraints of social expectations, personal insecurities, and lies. Rather than live in ways that are subhuman, we finally live in a manner worthy of God’s vision for humanity.”
In our second lesson from Philippians, Paul expresses the idea of authenticity in his phrase “having the mind of Christ”. He associates this mind with values that promote others above self, particularly “compassion” and “sympathy”, and then suggests that there is only room for these values in the Christlike mind when the self is put out of the way: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). Only by removing the self, Paul suggests, can “the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
The idea of devaluing the self is a difficult one. In the Sermon Brainwave disussion on today’s lections, Prof. Karoline Lewis and her colleagues the very honest statement that Paul’s call to lower ourselves can be heard the wrong way to modern ears, playing into power dynamics that promote inequalities and oppression. I think that’s a fair caution. Even for someone as relatively privileged as myself, it’s difficult to hear. This week I am meeting with my chaplain supervisor to receive my annual professional review, and of course the selfish part of me is hoping for good comments and a decent ranking that might lead the way to promotion and nice postings. Supessing the self or even dying to the self is a difficult thing.
I think however that the famous Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11, as important as it may be to our doctrine of Christology, also explains what Paul means by the “Christ mind”. The Son of God, Paul says, left the power and status of the divine to become a slave. My guilty pleasure right now is watching the Starz series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” which, while not for the faint of heart, reminds us what it means to be a slave in Paul’s world. No greater self-abnegation could be imagined by Paul’s contemporaries. So Paul is saying that authentic Christianity is the Christ mind and the Christ mind is selflessness. To be authentically Christian, we need to try to get over ourselves. Otherwise we may be surprised, like the religious professionals, to find that those we might see through and ignore, like the “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matt 21:31), are entering the kingdom of heaven way ahead of us.
Selflessness is not impossible. Military culture promotes it all the time. Theories about atltruism being a genetic trait may even suggest that it is hardwired in us. Whether we choose to cultivate an attitude of selflessness that as Christians will lead us into the mind of Christ is a choice that we make repeatedly over our lives. Selflessness means seeing the other person and their need with “compassion and sympathy”. If you like, try practising that skill the next time you go into Medicine Hat for a Timmies, not at the nice ones with the drive thrus, but the one on Third Street with no drive thru, where the riff raff, street folks and the mentally ill hang out. Get in line with them. Notice them. Say hello to them. While you are down there, you may notice the sign in a nearby shop window that I saw the other day. It reads “We are on this earth not to see through one another, but to see one another through”. Not a bad summary of the Christ mind, I think.