Speaking in the Rose Garden last Monday, the President showed a flash of his humanity when he said in response to his Supreme Court nominee’s professed love of beer: “I’m not a drinker. I can honestly say I’ve never had a beer in my life. It’s one of my only good traits. I don’t drink.”
Then, in what one reporter called “a brief moment of self-awareness,” he asked: “Can you imagine if I had? What a mess I would be? I would be the world’s worst.”[i]
Maybe so. Maybe so.
This led to the New Yorker cartoon showing a crowd of reporters and others recklessly fleeing the Rose Garden as the President explains: “I didn’t really mean for you to imagine me drunk!”
In considering some new virtues for our changing times, we come today to self-awareness—the practice of knowing oneself and working to not blame others for one’s troubles or moods; striving to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself and what actually belongs to the world.
The great French Reformer, John Calvin, whose work led to the Reformation in England and, therefore, ultimately to the development of Congregational churches such as ours, wrote at the beginning of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that all true wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. Self-awareness—Calvin keeps coming back to this central affirmation several times in the Institutes.
He recognizes that it is not easy to discern which brings forth the other, but self-knowledge seems to lead us to seek and, to some extent, even to know God. At the same time, we can’t really have a clear understanding of ourselves unless we also have some knowledge of God.
Our knowledge of God is limited at best.
And our knowledge of ourselves is incomplete as well.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great pastor, theologian and reformer of the 20th century, who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for his role in the plot against Hitler wrote a poem from his prison cell that asks: “Who am I?” in which he describes the brave person that others say he is and then asks:
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage…
yearning for colors, for flowers…thirsting for words of kindness…
weary and empty at praying, at thinking…
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I?
Many of us, perhaps all of us, ask similar questions of ourselves.
Who are we?
Hero or coward?
Saint or sinner?
Scholar or fool?
And who are we as people of faith, as Christians?
As limited as our self-awareness is, we can recognize its value for our lives.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans at times seems like a written quest for self-awareness—both his own and that of his readers.
At one point he confesses to the early Christians in Rome: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
At later he urges his readers: “Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities.”
Some degree of self-awareness seems essential for the life of faith, both so that we don’t deceive ourselves as well as so that we might come to a deeper knowledge of God.
Self-awareness is a challenge—often a difficult undertaking.
Sometimes we need a little help from our friends.
Jesus gathers his disciples and asks them: “Who do people say that I am? What’s the word on the street? Is anyone catching on as they watch and listen to me?”
There is something touching and tender in these words; something that shows the very human Jesus that we encounter in Mark’s gospel. This is not someone self-aware that he is the incarnate second person of the Trinity, as Christians later affirmed. This is one human being wondering what others think of him.
The answers started to come:
Well, some say that you are John the Baptist, who had recently been executed.
Or maybe you’re Elijah the prophet, returned from the dead.
Maybe you are the fiery Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.
These were his friends, his followers, and so they avoided using some of the less kind names people were giving to Jesus: blasphemer, false prophet, religious nut.
Jesus was asking about his identity, not just what he knew of himself, but also how others saw him.
In one of his sermons, Peter Gomes tells that delightful story—and I’m not suggesting that anyone here try this—the story of a Harvard student who sat for an exam and refused to stop writing when the proctor called time—a “capital crime in the examination business,” Gomes said. Finally, the proctor, losing all patience, demanded that the student come forward and present his blue book now. The student came forward and in that haughty manner so common in the Ivy League asked the proctor: “Do you know who I am?” The proctor, an egalitarian graduate student type, offended by the implications of the question and its social assumptions, said, “I most certainly do not, and I don’t care who you are.” The student then replied with a grin, “Good,” and threw his book into the large pile of examination books where its anonymity would protect him from censure and punishment.[ii]
Keep listening as Jesus tightens the circle of the discussion. “But,” Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus addresses not individuals but his followers as a group. When he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus uses the second person plural. “What about all of you? Do you know who I am?”
By what we do and say we tell the world who Jesus is—the One who welcomes the stranger and the outcast, the One who points us to the lilies of the field so that we might remember God’s providence in our own care for the earth, the One who is with us so that even in deep despair we find a deeper joy.
Knowing who Jesus is, we come to a deeper understanding of who we are as well. Claiming Jesus as our brother, by faith we see that we too are children of God—we become aware of ourselves as those who share in the nature of God, having the ability to be loving, merciful, just, and caring.
Do you know who you are? Whoever you are, above all else, you are a child of God. Can you be still for a moment and let that sink in? Above all else, you are a child of God.
If this was once an exclusive title, we can now only understand it in an inclusive way. While there are so many who would draw a line to mark who’s in and who’s out, as the sisters and brothers of Jesus we know that our status before God is the same as all other human beings.
All human beings are loved by God, cherished by their Creator. Knowing who we are, we see that abuse violates the image of God in all people. Hunger violates the image of God in all people. Poverty violates the image of God in all people. We honor and respect one another, our neighbors, even our enemies because we see the image of God in each person.
In the Talmud we read those wonderful words of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: “A procession of angels passes before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, “Make way for the image of God.” Think of the changes in our politics, our economics, our teaching and learning, our providing care, our creative work, our businesses, our family life if we held such a vision close to our hearts.
After worship this morning—or sometime in the days ahead—walk a block south of here to the original Literary Walk on Iowa Ave. There on the sidewalk out in front of Joe’s Place you will see the cautionary words of Kurt Vonnegut: “We are what we pretend to be. So we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.”
It seems to me that, whether he wanted to or not, Vonnegut said something very important about the Christian life.
Perhaps we are—and in a positive sense—“pretending” to be Christians. The root of that word suggests a stretching out before us, moving into a space that isn’t quite filled yet, an intending to be something or someone. We start by pretending to be Christians and doing the things that Christians seem to do: extending hospitality and welcoming all people, setting aside judgment in favor of love, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, speaking the truth to power, living as stewards of the earth, working for justice, for peace, for reconciliation in our lives, in our community, in our world. We do the things that Christians seem to do: worshipping and singing and praying, even if we’re not always sure why, even if we’re not always sure we’re doing it “right.” We bear one another’s burdens and share in each other’s joy.
We do the things that Christians seem to do, we pretend—stretching ourselves into those actions. And—maybe very quickly, or slowly over time—one day it occurs to us that we have become the very Christians that we were pretending to be.
Bonhoeffer ended his poem this way:
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
If Vonnegut is right, that we are what we pretend to be, then let us continue to pretend to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. And let us remember the good news that we have seen and heard today: whoever we are, we are God’s.
Who are you?
Our identity changes but we are always those who belong to God, even the children of God.
[ii] Peter Gomes, “Identity Crisis,” in Sermons, pg. 122.