Searching for God Knows What

August 12, 2018
Rev. Dr. Jeff Japinga

Jeremiah 31:31-31; Ephesians 4:1-6;
Matthew 18:10-14

It is truly a privilege to be here. Thank you for this invitation.

As the apostle Paul wrote at the beginning of the book of Ephesians, I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason—well, this reason, yes, and also who you are and where you are and how you use your resources, and for all the support so many of you give to the ministry of the wider church—for all these reasons, I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. True with Paul. True with me.

While not a stranger to many of you at Westminster, neither am I exactly a common fixture here. Were this a different time and setting, I might suggest we could try a little get-to-know-you game. I’m sure you’ve done something like it before.

+ If you’ve been a member of Westminster for more than ten years, stand over to my left. Less than ten years, to my right.

+ Lifelong Presbyterian, left…newer Presbyterian, on my right.

+ Vikings fan…Packers fan.

+ Football fan…couldn’t care less.

But then I might ask: “Are you more like a kite string or a clothesline? Kite strings to my left, clotheslines to the right.” Most of you would move one way or the other, as you had before, though many of you would make it clear in your body language that you thought this exercise just took a really dumb turn.

After inviting you to notice who was on one side of the room or the other, I’d ask a few of you to explain why you see yourself this way. The kite string folks—at least the extroverts willing to play along—would say things like, I like to move about freely, or, I’d rather play than work, or, I keep things up in the air. And the clothesline folk, with a sudden sense of conviction, would reply: we’re reliable; or we’re strong, or we’re anchored to our place and work.

I’ve done this enough times to know that, about this time, something remarkable tends to happen. The language people use turns from I to we.

And kite strings—it’s almost always the kite strings—begin to try to convince clothes lines to change sides, to come join them. To be them. Because, as we all know, it’s better to be a kite string than a clothesline. At least, it is if you’re a kite string.

Kite strings or clotheslines is a fanciful kind of game, one of those touchy-feely exercises thought up by someone with far too much time on their hands. But odd as it is, this game often opens a window to something far deeper: how we construct our identities, individually and communally, and how quickly the activities and groups we belong to begin to define not only how we see ourselves, but how we see others, and even hold ourselves apart from others.

This morning, I’d like us to stop playing games for a moment and get serious, about one of the most important questions you’ll ever need to answer.

Who are you?

Who you are, and what it is that finally shapes you, and forms you, as a person? What helps you decide how you will act, and how you will make decisions and relate to others not like you?

This is not a request for data, the stuff we put on driver’s licenses and census forms: names and addresses and birthdates, or nationality and race. Nor is it a request for the usual currency of social status: what you do or where you live or how much money you make; what firm you work for or what school you graduated from, or the school your child just got admitted to; your favorite club or restaurant, your political leanings (save that for Tuesday…but make sure you do express that on Tuesday), even whether you’re a kite string or clothesline.

Nor is it to determine whether you are now able to lean in, speak up, take a seat at the table, assert your rights, follow your own lead without guilt or apology, all the markers of self-help best-sellers.

These are all fine things to know, mind you, and at some level, probably define you. I’m looking for something else, something deeper. Your identity. Your core.

So was Jeremiah, a wild-eyed, hard-nosed prophet speaking into a time that could hardly have been worse. Jerusalem had been overrun by the Babylonians, the Temple reduced to rubble, and much of the Jewish nation to which Jeremiah’s prophecy is addressed carted off to exile in Babylon.

These people had no resume, no currency, and every reason to be bitter. And for most of his 52 chapters, Jeremiah was not much help, essentially saying, “You had it coming. You relied on yourself, and here’s what you got for it.”

But here and there, Jeremiah also began to imagine something different, something of a radical new hope for God’s people: a new standard, an inward transformation. A “law within them,” he calls it, an identity “written on the heart” rather than on stone tablets, or a resume.

In Jeremiah’s growing vision, who you are is not in what you do, no matter what you do, nor in how you feel about yourself, no matter how you feel. It is not about the people to whom you belong, nor the accomplishments to which you can point, nor the tragedies which may have befallen you. Who you are is, in the end, not a matter of psychology or sociology or economy, but of theology. A people who do the right thing not for the personal gain or benefit they hope to reap, but because they have actually come to desire the right thing.

Grace, love, redemption, blessing—these are not dangled as lures to motivate us, rewards for only to the most worthy, but as the foundation of who we are.

God does not appear as a goal for the end of your story, but as a presence from the very beginning, calling you by name, not simply on the last day but on the very first, and those wandering times in between. And it is Jesus, ready to leave the 99 behind to find you, you, calling you by name.

And it is why Paul’s deepest request in all of his letters is not one of fidelity to a specific doctrine or belief—do this or do that, and you will be saved—but that of a soaring reality that goes to the very core of our identity and our being:

I beg you….I beg you…To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

The calling you have had from the very beginning.

That amidst all the clutter of life, amidst all the arguments over who is best and who is most important, amidst all those multiple ways

that we see ourselves and the world sees us, we are finally something else, something more: children of God.

A year has passed since white supremacists descended en masse on Charlottesville, Virginia for the “Unite the Right” rally. What began on August 11, 2017 with a torchlit march through the University of Virginia’s famous Lawn culminated the next day in a violent confrontation that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer in a car-ramming attack and of two State Police officers in a helicopter accident,

as well as dozens of injuries.

Ever since, this country has continued to feel the aftershocks from these deep fissures in American society, where our seeming belief in scarcity

pits person against person, group against group, race against race, in a frantic quest to get what we think we deserve—or to keep what we already have.

Here is our reality today:

We can stand for truth—and we must—

but someone will always stand against us.

We can insulate ourselves against evil—

but evil will always find us.

What we need is a different way of looking at ourselves and each other and our respective worth.

Friends, what we’ve been searching for since Charlottesville, maybe for our whole lives, has been there all along. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

What finally will give us freedom from cycles of rivalry and violence; from the lie of exclusion; from shame and victimhood; from destructive patterns in self, with others, and in systems, is a message both as simple and as complicated as the prophet who delivered it: that we will find the freedom to expose evil; to do justice and love mercy; to live courageously, to stand for what is right, when we first believe that we ourselves are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.

And then insist on that for all.

It’s not a magic potion. Like those Israelites, we will keep trying our own ways. And evil will drag us down. But I am convinced, more and more every day, that our only real hope is Jeremiah’s hope, and Christ’s example. That God is working in me, in us, to raise up our better selves.

That God is chiseling away on our sometimes stony hearts, reminding us of the law of love that’s right there.

The love that is what finally gives us life.

The love that finally tells me—tells us—who I am, and how I am called to be in this world. For this world. And for all those whom God has called God’s own.

I beg you, my friends at Westminster, to live a life worthy of this calling to which you have been called.


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