The sermon for week June 26, 2011
IN WHOSE IMAGE?
Genesis 1:26-31, Matthew 10:40-42
I was standing at the receptionist’s counter in the lobby of the nursing home waiting to get the room number of the church member we were going to visit and give communion. I was visiting on behalf of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee where I was serving and with me was an elder from the church. The receptionist was on the phone and while I was waiting I happened to turn around and against the opposite wall was a mirror where for one nano second I glanced at my image staring back at me.
I was horrified.
It was not, I thought, a pretty sight.
The guy in the mirror looked so different from the image in my mind, and it wasn’t for the better. The shoulders were rounded, the waist was wider and the hair grayer. It was a moment of stark reality. I thought who is this guy staring back at me? I barely recognize him. When did he change?
I took one more glance just to make sure that what I saw was what I saw.
It was me staring back.
I quickly turned away. It was an experience that pierced through the retina of my eyes landing with a thud, bruising my psychic.
I left the counter without getting the room number and with the elder we found our way to the church member’s room. We made our visit, offered communion and once more passed through the lobby, this time ignoring the mirror.
In the middle of the lobby, facing us, as though she had been waiting was an elderly lady sitting in a wheelchair, aided in her breathing by a portable oxygen tank. As we passed by she called out, “Dr. Andersen.” I turned around and said, “Yes?” She said, “I know you. You are from First Baptist.” I said, “No, but I use to be.” She said, “I am a member of Ashland Baptist, and I recognized you when you came in.”
It was from many, many years ago, but she still recognized me. I wanted to kiss her. I hadn’t recognized myself in the mirror but she recognized me when I passed by. I thought, well maybe I haven’t changed all that much after all. I said to myself, “Oh, bless you my dear lady. You are like an angel sitting in that chair, an angel waiting with a blessing for a bruised soul. I glanced in the mirror barely knowing the person I saw but you still recognized me and called me by name.”
I use to think that one’s identity was something with which you wrestled early in life as a teen-ager or young adult, but then it is solved and you lived out the rest of your life firmly rooted to that identity. I realize, now, after having lived most of the stages of life, it is not quite so simple and that all through your life questions of identity continue to be raised and contemplated. The question, “Who am I?” is ongoing, revealing ever new dimensions to its answer as one gets older.
You ask it as you look for a life’s work. You ask it when you get married. You ask it when you become a parent. You ask it again after the children have grown and left home. You ask it when you have finished your employment and retire. You ask it as your body changes. You ask it when you join a new group and wonder about your place in it. Always there is the search for identity, identity being explored.
It is not an easy search, this quest to know one’s self, but it should never be despairing, it should never be entered into without hope because however far that journey of discovery takes you and however many times a new situation or circumstance in life causes you to reevaluate that sense of self and your place in the world, always, always at the core, it is written that who you are was spoken in a Word at creation. It is the significance of this beginning point I want to explore with you this morning.
As much as the Bible is about journey and exodus and pilgrimage the beginning in a sense always becomes the ending, because whatever you might find out about yourself along the way, as new as it might seem to you, it is always about from whence you came. You are who you are. Everything in your quest for identity is commentary upon your beginning, and what is that beginning? It is not the wealth or poverty from which you came or the race or gender to which you were born, but it is that in the beginning you were created by God and this sets the stage for everything else that follows.
You are created by God. This is who you are.
But it is more explicit than this, the Bible says, you are not only created by God, you are created in God’s image. It says, you have God’s breath in you. It says, you are loved by the God who created you.
You may experience lots of angst in your life. You may go through periods of existential despair. The church may focus on your sinfulness and flay against it. Society may reduce you to a number. But none of that can change from whence you came. Forrest Church wrote, “The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.” I am created by God. I am created in the image of God. I have God’s breath in me. I am loved by the God who created me.
In the Hebrew Bible there are two postures in prayer. In the one you are on your knees with your face to the earth or flat on the ground. You are aware of how you have distorted the image of God in you, but in the other, like the old painting of Daniel in the lions’ den, you are erect, standing tall, your arms uplifted and your face directed to the heavens, praising God, knowing it is in His image you have been created. All Christ was and is, everything Christ did and taught, and is doing, including speaking through a woman in a wheelchair, is to get you back to the awareness of who you are as created by God, in God’s likeness with his breath giving you life.
“The universe was pregnant with you when it was born,” and for each of us that exploration, that journey of discovery toward self means not that you have to create the spark of light but that you explore in yourself what that light reveals. “I apply the name ‘God,’” wrote Martin Buber, the great Jewish mystic and writer, “to my Creator that is the author of my uniqueness.” This is your pilgrimage, finding uniquely, what it means that God has created you in his image.
And along the way, in this journey of self discovery, through every phase of your life God is with you, supporting and encouraging you, healing and inspiring you through the intervention and support of others, and this is my second point, the same as it was when I preached about those who helped Lazarus from the grave. Never do you have to do it on our own. Always, here on earth, God is going to help you along the way by placing in your life and through companions along the way, others that will encourage you and nurture you and when necessary forgive you, doing whatever it takes, so that you may realize the image of God in you, your own uniqueness, kept alive forever by the breath of God.
Sometimes it may be something so incidental as a seemingly chance encounter in the lobby of a nursing home. Other times it might be a mentor or a teacher or a spouse or a parent. Mark Rutherford wrote, “Blessed are those who heal us of our self-despising.”
It is important who you hang out with.
A while ago Sharon and I received an email from a couple, who with four other couples, had been our friends when as young adults and parents we all lived in Charleston, West Virginia. We had all vacationed together and partied together and worshipped together. This couple was cleaning out their attic in preparation to move and came across a letter Sharon and I had written and read to the group on the eve before the day Sharon and I moved from Charleston thirty five years ago. These friends emailed a copy of that letter to us and the other members of the group. I had read it aloud to them the last night before we left at a party they gave for us.
I had not read this letter in thirty five years, but in it Sharon and I addressed each member of the group and what they had meant to us. Here is what we said: “To Margaret for your genuine compassion for other people...to Arlen for your sense of decency and search for more insight...to Kathy for your support and compliments even when we really disagreed...to Bruce for your interests so varied and in those interests for being an original...to Norma for your gentleness and sensitivity toward others...to Buddy for your exuberance, loyalty...to Lavonne for your affirmation of life and willingness to dare and share what you find...to Joe for your camaraderie and depth of friendship.”
I am today because of what those friends were for me thirty-five years ago. In my mind without them I may have understood that I was created by God in God’s image, but it took these friends to show me what that meant and to give me the courage and acceptance to explore its dimensions in my life. Of this I am certain, we need one another and God gives us one another, including Jesus Christ and Christ’s Church and family and friends, to help us become what God has created us to be.
Finally, that same image is how we are to view all of humanity. We see in every human being the story of creation reenacted, and it evokes in us the same love with which we are loved and the love with which we embrace, humbly and gratefully, our own life.
Kathleen Norris in her book, Dakota, recounts the story of an early monk, “who is surprised to hear that a gardener in a nearby city has a way of life more pleasing to God than his own. Visiting the city he finds the man selling vegetables, and asks for shelter overnight. The gardener, overcome with joy to be of service, welcomes the monk into his home. While the monk admires the gardener’s hospitality and life of prayer, he is disturbed to find that the vulgar songs of drunks can be heard coming from the street, and asks the gardener, ‘Tell me what do you conceive in your heart when you hear these things?’ The man replies, ‘That they are all going to the kingdom.’ The old monk marvels and says, ‘This is the practice which surpasses my labor of all these years. Forgive me, brother, I have not yet approached this standard.’ And without eating, he withdraws again into the desert.” (p.98-99).
The gardener was attuned to the majesty in each person, created in the image of God, even the revelers outside his door, and it filled him with compassion. The same God who fashioned me in God’s image and which I find in being myself and is supported by my friends and church, is the same God who fashioned my neighbor, and the strangers I sit with in the theater and those whose lives I only touch through television.
We are all from the same stock. We all have the same beginning. We were all given life by the same breath and my destination to know as I am known by God is the destination toward which we all travel. So, along the way, whether it be the person sitting next to me in the pew or in Haiti or Japan, or North Dakota and Mississippi or Toledo - their suffering becomes my suffering, their burden my burden, and the same compassion with which God spoke the words, “Let us make man in our own image, male and female God created them,” becomes the compassion with which we look upon one another and every other human being. In that compassion is all the light of God and is revealed most fully what it means that God has created us in HIs image and it is God’s breath that has given us life.
And God loved all that God had made - may that same love be in you, a love for yourself, a love for one another, and a love for the world. And may that love guide you to be less harsh and more kind to yourself, less critical and more affirming of those who are your family and friends, and less judgmental and more helpful, especially, toward the many who suffer, but who like you are created in God’s image.
I end with these words from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself.”
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and everyone is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.