August 9, 2015
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
SouthPark Christian Church
Reverend Dr. Timothy Moore
The Faces of Jesus by Frederick Buechner is a favorite book of mine. Buechner wrote the text and collected the artwork 41 years ago. He understood where Christianity was going. What had been a European based religion was expanding rapidly across the globe. Globalization was happening in the Christian Church faster than it was in the business world. Buechner’s book reminds us that believers from around the world see Jesus in their own faces. He does not have blue eyes and sandy brown hair.
So in this book we see an African Jesus, a Korean Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a European Jesus, a Latina Jesus. In one picture Jesus looks a little bit like Buddha. In another one, he has the dark skin of an African tribesman. In another he looks like he was born and raised in Iowa.
This idea of incarnation – that God became human, that God came in the flesh – means that Jesus was a particular man (and I’m not trying to speak generally of human kind). Jesus was a man and not a woman. He was Jewish by birth – ethnically and religiously – which meant that he was not African, or Hispanic, or European. Sometimes the Church has used Jesus’ particularity to construct some odd conclusions. One of the reasons cited by branches of Christianity that have an all-male priesthood is that because Jesus was male, priests should be male. Likewise, Jesus’ unmarried status is used to defend the Catholic position of having celibate and unmarried clergy. But if those are compelling reasons, why stop at gender and marital status? Why shouldn’t all priests be of Middle Eastern ethnicity, or Jewish by birth? Kick out all the blue-eyed or blond-headed priests. Or maybe an apprenticeship in carpentry should be required before seminary training?
Of course such arguments are ridiculous. To pose things that way is to miss how Jesus became like us. The Christian story is that God – the creator of the universe, a being that is beyond time and space – became mortal, limited. God became particular.
And by being one thing – one gender, one race, one ethnicity – he could identify with the one thing for everyone else. In becoming male and Jewish and Middle Eastern, he affirmed the person who is female and white and Hispanic as well as the person who is male and Asian and Japanese and so on with every person on earth. We are all one thing and not another in all sorts of categories. Everyone can see Jesus in the mirror, because each of us is one thing as Jesus was one thing.
1) Matthew ends his gospel by answering the beginning of his gospel.
At the beginning of Matthew it seems Joseph wasn’t buying the whole “an angel came to me and said that I was going to have a child by the Holy Spirit” story. So, he decided to divorce Mary quietly, to keep the scandal as quiet as possible. But then he had a dream.
In the dream an angel comes to him and tells him all that is happening. The angel tells Joseph that the child is to be Emmanuel, which means God with us. God with us. The Christmas story, as Matthew tells it, is focused on Jesus’ presence. God is with us through Jesus.
And then at the end of his gospel he comes right back to this idea. By now, Jesus has died on a cross and been resurrected on Easter morning. The disciples have gathered on a mountain to say good-bye to Jesus. He tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of Holy Spirit.” And his last words to them were, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
He could have said, “And remember, I am Emmanuel, for all of you, even to the end of the age.”
The beginning of Matthew’s gospel declares that in the birth of Christ Jesus God is with us, that God became like us. The ending of Matthew’s gospel declares that as we live our lives, as we go into the world, God through the resurrected Jesus goes with us. The birth story of Jesus tells us that he had a face. The resurrection story of Jesus tells us that his face is in ours. So when we look in the mirror, we see Jesus. And when we look at one another, we see Jesus.
The incarnation of God first declares that God in Jesus lived as we live. The resurrection declares that because of Jesus as we live God lives with us.
2) One of the great things about our human experience is that each one of us is unique. There are no two of us alike. Not even identical twins – who have the same DNA – are alike. We are each uniquely made in God’s image. There never was another person like you on the face of the earth before you came and there will never be another person like you on the face of the earth. That is really fascinating. That each of us get the chance to play a unique role in God’s world.
It can also be liberating. Our task in life is simply to be who we are. We do not have to be like our parents, or siblings. We do not have to be like the genius in Geometry class. We do not have to be like the beautiful and popular girls at school. We do not have to be like the guy who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and is always the top sales producer at the company. We have God’s permission to just be ourselves. Only you can be you. No one else can. You are the only person with the privilege of being you.
But our uniqueness also means that at times the human experience can be a lonely one. There is no one like us. And there are times that feels very much alone. There are times when we feel that no one understands us. There are times when we feel like we have failed – not just in our studies, or on the job, or in our marriage – but failed at being us. And bearing that burden alone can be very heavy to carry. Often times we find ourselves wishing we could be someone else. That if we were just as smart as the genius in Geometry class, or were as beautiful as the girl across the street, or had the charisma of the top salesperson in our company, then our life would be better. But in wishing for a different life, we risk losing the chance to live the life we have.
It’s one of the reasons we long for connections in our lives. It’s why falling in love is so wonderful, because it feels like we are completely one with another human being. When you start falling in love you find yourself saying, “I just met him and it feels like I’ve known him my whole life,” or “When I talk to her, it’s like she already knows what I’m thinking.” The cathartic feeling of being one with someone makes you imagine that you are not alone, stuck in this body, but you’ve been able to connect past these flesh made boundaries. But of course, falling in love is temporary.
So, we are left with the harder work of connecting in more pedestrian ways – of making friendships, relating to family, building a marriage of love after falling in love fades, creating a faith community. It is these connections that make the particular experience that each of us has a unique human being broader and bigger than what goes on in our heads and in our souls. Still, the alone-ness creeps in doesn’t it? Specifically, when we find ourselves on difficult paths.
But the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ says that we are not alone. The incarnation of God in Jesus proclaims Emmanuel, God with us. The incarnation of God in Jesus announces, “I am with you, even to the end of the age.”
So, when as a teenager you are trying to figure out who you are – and are sometimes elated when moments of self-understanding open your eyes and are sometimes crushed when you don’t like the person you see in the mirror – Emmanuel, God is with you, understanding you, loving you, giving you courage to be you.
And when as an adult you are trying to manage spinning all the plates you have to keep spinning before they all come crashing down – and are sometimes amazed at your competence and are sometimes scared to death that at any moment the plates will start coming down and everyone will see what a failure you are – Emmanuel, God is with you, understanding you, loving you, giving you courage to be you.
And when as an aging adult you are trying to make the most of these days – and are sometimes filled with love because of all the blessings in your life and are sometimes depressed because you feel it coming to an end, your health, your mobility, your mind, your life – Emmanuel, God is with you, understanding you, loving you, giving you courage to be you.
3) The first words Jesus says to his disciples on that mountaintop just before he left them and ascended into heaven are easily forgotten, but I think set everything up. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he says. In other words, every thing is under his command and what he says next is like a decree to the whole world.
And what does he say next? “Go therefore…” or as it could also be translated, “As you go…” into the world… I will be with you, Emmanuel, even till the end of the age.”
He had a face… just as each of you has a face. He had a life to live… just as each of you has a life to live. Don’t lose the chance to live the life you have by wishing for a different life. Have the courage to be you. AMEN