27 January 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
In the Name of Jesus.
Then filled with the spirit, he began to teach everywhere and was praised by everyone and he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
And yet another “scripture”: “To thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” And while the second “scripture” was put into the mouth of Polonius, a totally sleazy character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and was meant to be dripping with bloody irony as the light of day is overcome by the night of Polonius’s advice, still these two “scriptures,” separately or together are often hailed as expressing what it means to be a truly authentic human being. Both of these human scriptures sum up the contemporary virtues of “doing one’s own thing,” “getting one’s own needs met first,” or, wearing the guise of something a bit more high-tone, the virtue of “self-actualization.” Just ask Friedrich Nietzsche or Ayn Rand.
Of course, it would be unfair of me to label this emphasis on self-fulfillment, self-actualization, doing it my way, and being true to the self as something modern, something new, something unique to our own culture. Already in Genesis 2, in the story of Adam and Eve we hear about what has been called original sin – about how Adam and Eve, singly and together, wanted to be like God – Number One – having it their way. And indeed throughout Holy Scripture, those who worship the self – or collectively, those groups who put themselves and their interests over others – are condemned for doing so – which of course leads Martin Luther to identify our original sin as being corvatus en se, being turned-in-on-self.
In the Second Reading from Holy Scripture today we hear St. Paul admonishing the people of the Church in Corinth, a church divided into factions, with certain of the people and certain groups with the church thinking they’re a bit – perhaps a whole lot – better than others, superior to others. Paul employs the metaphor of the body to get his point across. Hands must not think they’re the ones who are truly the most important, doing their own thing, superior to the rest of the body – even to the point of separating themselves from the body. And the same goes for the eyes, the ears, and so on and so forth. No one part of the body, no one group is to consider itself so singularly important that it can act alone – and if not getting its own way threaten to leave the body, the community.
And as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to a close, the analogy of the body tells us too that no one congregation, no one tradition may deem itself the most important part of the Body of Christ, the most effective part of the body. Individually, as single congregations, we can’t do a heck of a lot about famine, malaria, education, health care, women’s rights, and institutionalized racism – but together, as body much can be accomplished. Now, I cite the following, not to put one Christian tradition over another – but to illustrate what happens when we function not as single congregations – each congregation trying to show how special it is – but when we work together, as a body. The world-wide Lutheran church operates the world’s largest social service network and a network in which well over 90% of each dollar goes not toward overhead but toward aid that makes a difference and effects change. Yet, this work of the larger church is more and more threatened in a time when more and more we each want to do it our way, want to do something so our congregation looks good by comparison to others, want to do it our way so we can have control over how our gifts are used. To thine own self be true; to do the things we truly feel and not the deeds of those who kneel; let the record show, we did it our way and were fully self-actualized.
Jesus, in today’s Christ story from St. Luke, reads from the scroll of Holy Scripture: “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . . to let the oppressed go free.” And sitting down, Jesus says to those gathered there: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In our various orders for confession and absolution we often hear the words of 1 John 1.8 that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And in one Lutheran Prayer of Confession, together we admit that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Yes indeed, we are in bondage to our turned-in-on-self selves – singly and collectively. And yes, we do, all of us, and without a doubt – we really try to do better. We try not to be so self-absorbed, so busy burnishing our own image; but, you know, when I take time to truly assess what I do, I’m with Paul when he says in Romans 7: “Argh!! I can will what is right (well, sort of, sometimes), but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . Wretched person that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” Well, it’s not going to be some self-help manual that frees us from captivity to the self; nor is it going to be a day on the slopes that will release us from needing to have it our way, and its not going to be a personal trainer who liberates us from our bondage to me, my, and mine. And no program of self-actualization is going to be much of anything other than a feeble attempt at self-justification through the works of the law.
Release from our captivity to the turned-in-on-self self, freedom from our oppression to self-image and self-service does come, however, in and through Christ Jesus. Upon the cross, Jesus traded his own righteousness for our own unrighteousness; the happy exchange, Paul calls it in Galatians – even as we bring to bear our captivity to self-righteousness by nailing Jesus to the cross, Jesus, suffering the results of our will to do it our way, proclaims us forgiven – and places his own righteousness in the place of our self-fulfillment. And the old self breathes its last as Christ proclaims: It is finished, the gig is up.
So now, dear people of God, that this be fulfilled in your own hearing, listen up: The old self is dead and gone; Christ releases you from the captivity of having to have it and do it your way; Christ now opens your eyes now you see: you are free from the oppression of the self. And now you have a new identity: you are a part of the Crucified and Risen Body of Christ, the Body that shall live and dwell forever in that realm where there will be no more sorrow or sighing. Amen.
Oh – and if any one of you thinks this sermon is about you, rest assured: it is about each of us singly and all of us collectively, myself included.
To the only wise God then, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.