Know Who You Are
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
Karl Barth once commented that all sin is basically ingratitude. Jesus is saying much the same thing to his disciples gathered before him on the plain. His Sermon on the Plain could not be clearer—the people of God respond to God’s love and mercy by showing love and mercy. Our gratitude to God is shown in how we treat other people.
We hear much that is confusing about the Church’s mission and purpose, much agonizing about the proper role of the Christian Church in society. What is even more important than the question of purpose is the question of identity. Not so much, “What should we be doing?” as “Who are we?” for people of faith, our identity is crucial. We can only do the Lord’s will so long as we understand that we are the Lord’s people. We can only be the hands of Christ in this world so long as we understand the hands pierced by nails for us. Much of our present task and challenge deals with memory. We remember what blessings we have received as individual people and as a community and then we are empowered to be a blessing to others. Our memories need stretching and strengthening for we live in a time where the past recedes and what went before us is forgotten and where persons continually reinvent themselves. William Dyrness has put it, “Without an informed memory of our past and what God has done with that past, our openness to the future is ultimately without direction…in the end…memory is the basis of real hope.”
Our identity is in the Lord. We are God’s own people created and called to follow the one who first loved and redeemed us. Our individual and family stories are bound up with the old story of the God of Mount Moriah who offered a lamb sacrifice for that of Isaac; the God of Mount Sinai who rescued an enslaved people and gave them the Law, the God of Mount Zion who called for sacrifices for sin in a glorious Temple and of Mount Calvary who sent his own son to die for sin and redeem the world. We confess that this story is not ancient history but our own history, our own story. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the Sinai event happened once and yet happens all the time. It happens to us when we are called from our slaveries and bondages into God’s freedom. It happens as we understand that God is with us on our life’s journey, that God is leading our pilgrimage to the Promised Land. God goes before us to prepare a place for us in a land of milk and honey. It is our story. Our story involves a manger in Bethlehem. We are like shepherd who come to see these things that have happened. We are like wise men who come to see a King of the Jews who is also our king.
Our story goes through town and country of Galilee, goes up to Jerusalem to the Passover, goes to suffer and die on a cross and our story is the empty tomb. We are like those women, lonely and afraid who hear good news. We join Mary and the disciples in an Upper Room and hear the rush of a mighty wind, see tongues as of fire and hear the Gospel message in our own tongue. We journey with Paul and Silas to the ends of the earth. We remember these stories—our story and add to them the memory of a day when we were brought to the baptism font and made children of God. We remember our confirmation vows to be faithful, our first communion, the times when God’s Word spoke clearly to us with words we needed to hear, we remember times of joy, those wedding days and anniversary days perhaps the wedding days of our children, and remember times of sorrow, funerals of loved ones. We bring to remembrance all that the Lord taught his disciples and us and the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I was reading a story from Sarajevo in Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1992. At four o’clock one afternoon in May, a mortar shell exploded in a square killing twenty-two people who were waiting in line for food. The next day, at the same time, a cellist from the Sarajevo Symphony went to the spot where the shell had exploded, set up his chair and instrument and played Albonini’s “Adagio.” The cellist returned each day for the next twenty-two days to play the same piece, once for each of the twenty-two persons killed. One might call it an act of consecration of remembering so that the dead would be honored and not forgotten.
Another story comes from the early 1980s in South Africa. A small village named Magopa received a message from the white government that its land had been declared a white area under the terms of the Group Areas Act, one of the legal foundations of the apartheid system. Since the residents were black, they were informed that they must move. The people of the village, many of whose families had lived there for four generations and had never known another home, informed the government that they would not move. The government told them if they did not move by a certain date, bulldozers would come to demolish the village and force them out. The people still refused to leave. On the evening before the bulldozers were to arrive, a group of pastors went to the village to hold a prayer service with the people. It is common in Africa to ask someone from the congregation to offer prayer for the whole community and so one of the elderly men was asked to pray. He stood up, an old man about to lose the only home he had ever known and he began his prayer with the words, “Lord, thank you for loving us.”
We remember our Lord’s love for us even when times are hard and we are faced with great difficulties. We remember the Lord’s presence with us especially in times of illness and loss, when we lose a job, when we have family difficulties. We remember our identity as God’s people, that we have been loved with an everlasting love. Then we can ask the next question, “What should we do as Christians?” Then the text of the Sermon on the Plain can be taken in its intended sense, because of God’s love and mercy for us, we can show love and mercy to others. We can love our enemies not just our friends, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. If someone would strike us on the cheek, we can offer the other one. If someone takes our coat, we can give than one our shirt besides. We can give and keep on giving, love and keep on loving, have mercy without expectation of return or reward.
The whole Gospel story is a message of God’s love coming first. We love because God first loved us. God’s love creates Adam and Eve, God’s love mitigates the Fall, God’s love saves Noah and his family, God’s love calls Abraham and Sarah to follow in faith, God’s love uses the wickedness of Joseph’s family to keep many alive through the famine, God’s love brought the Hebrews out of slavery. God’s love sent prophets to warn the people and then God’s love brought them back from exile. Finally God’s love was seen in sending is only Son to take on our human flesh, die for our iniquities and be raised to proclaim our salvation. God’s love comes first and only then do we respond in prayer, praise and thanksgiving, in acts of charity and mercy.
“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37-38 WEB). These are instruction for Christian disciples and the Golden Rule, “As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them” (Luke 6:31 WEB). Believe and then do. Remember God’s story, the old, old story of Jesus and his love, and remember your story. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014 James D. Kegel. Used by permission