I have spent the summer at a peach and veggie stand rather than blogging! My cousin, Margaret, sent me this sermon knowing I would love it. I think you will love it too.
“Wisdom: Be Who You Are”
July 17, 2011
R. Scott Colglazier First Congregational Church
Senior Minister Los Angeles, CA
Scripture Reading – Matthew 5:13-16
Well, here we are, right in the middle of “Carmageddon,” and though the world has not come to an end in Los Angeles, a few inconveniences have no doubt been encountered. As I’ve thought about what it means to shut down the nation’s busiest freeway for three days, it seems to me that there is wisdom to be embraced here. And that’s my beginning point this morning.
Every now and then we have to shut down our lives, in order for something new to emerge inside our living. It’s real easy to do today what we did yesterday. To think the same thing. Feel the same thing. Do the same thing. But as the writer Annie Dillard reminds us: “What we do with our lives is what we do with our days.” And sometimes we have to shut down to see how we are living our days.
In many ways, church is a shut down hour. We come into this sacred space that is unlike any other space in our lives. We say prayers. We listen to music. But we come here believing that if we shut some things down, if only for a few moments, other things will begin to open up. And what I want you to open up to this morning, is the wisdom of being who you are. There’s nothing better than being who you are, and there’s nothing more painful than living a life that is not who you are.
One way to think about it is this: There is within each of us an essential self. Our true self. Everyone has a true self. As Christians, we believe that all people are created in the image of God, and that means God’s presence is in each person. It’s not that you have to become something else to get to God’s presence; God’s presence is already inside you in the form of a true self.
The problem is that our true self becomes damaged. And so, for example, the true self might want to twirl and dance as a little four year old girl, but when you do that, all it takes is a critical father or mother to say something like, “Don’t twirl and dance so much; it makes you look silly.” That wounds the inner self. The message sent is: “Who you are is unacceptable. Who you are is not welcome. Who you are must change in order to be a recipient of my love.” And in one way or another, this happens to everyone. Everyone. No one emerges from childhood without some damage to the true self.
And so we to struggle. We struggle with either a true self or false self. What do I mean by that? Well, this is how I would describe it . . .
When I am living out of my true self, my life feels like it flows. My life feels real. Authentic. Truthful. I feel energized. I feel playful. I feel joyful. I feel spontaneous and grateful. I feel connected to what is happening around me, and 2
within me. I feel as if things in my life are aligned, like a fine work of architecture. Or that they are resonating, like a wonderful chord played upon this magnificent organ. Most of us know when we are living out of our true self, and what I want to say is that there is hardly anything more beautiful in this world than when a person finds the courage to be who they are.
That person becomes, as Jesus suggests in the Gospel of Matthew, that person becomes like a city set on a hill. Have you seen a city set on a hill? In the evening? As the lights begin to twinkle in the houses and office buildings? It is spectacular. Los Angeles is not a city set on a hill; it is, however, a city built at the bottom of a basin. But if you go up to the Hollywood Hills, and look down upon Los Angeles, on a clear summer night, without fog or smog, this city is spectacular. That’s what a person looks like who is living out of their true self; he or she is spectacular and beautiful and lovely.
I had a dream not long ago that relates to the true self. My dream was that it was Easter Sunday at First Church. I was in the sanctuary. The place was packed. I stood in this pulpit and tried to start my sermon but couldn’t. I said a sentence here, but then I stopped and said, “No, that’s not it.” I tried another opening sentence, and I then said, “No, that’s not it either.” I couldn’t deliver the sermon.
I didn’t know what to do, and so in the dream I walked down from the pulpit, walked toward you the congregation, and there was a baby here. I don’t know whose baby it was, but I held that baby in my arms, and I said to the congregation, “This is what God wants you to know on Easter Sunday. This is my sermon.” And in the dream, while holding that baby, I started singing a Stevie Wonder song. I started singing: “You are the sunshine of my life; that’s why I’ll always stay around; you are the apple of my eye; forever you’ll stay in my heart.”
That really is how God feels about you and me. And that is why we can live out of our true self, because we are loved and accepted, and because we are the apple of God’s eye.
And just like beautiful New York doesn’t have to be like beautiful Los Angeles and beautiful Los Angeles doesn’t have to be like beautiful San Francisco, you don’t have to be like anyone else in order to be beautiful to God. And you don’t have to be squeezed out of some kind of plastic religious mold to be beautiful in this church. True human beauty comes by finding the courage to be who we are.
The false self is very different. Here’s when I know I am living out of my false self: I find that I am more worried about how I am being perceived, rather than how I really feel or what I really think myself. I define my life externally rather than internally. I’m more focused on my presentational self rather than the true self. I am more concerned about making someone else happy, rather than being honest about what makes me happy.
Often the false self is meticulously programmed. Have you noticed that? Here’s what a good husband does. Here’s what a good wife does. Here’s what a good employee does. Here’s what a good minister does. Here’s what a good son does. 3
Here’s what a good daughter does. Here’s what a good Christian does. And none of it is bad, unless we are so detached from the true self that nothing rings true anymore. Nothing feels right anymore.
And so, for many of us, rather than wearing our true face, we learn to wear a mask. We smile when we’re sad. We laugh when we want to cry. And we tend to say “Everything is fine” when in fact… we don’t feel fine at all.
And here’s another insight about the false self – I know I am living out of my false self when I am exhausted, strained, pressured, or stressed. Burn out doesn’t happen because we’re too busy. I used to think that, but I don’t anymore. Burn out happens when we’re too busy with the wrong things. When I’m working really hard on the right things, I might get tired, but the truth is that I am energized. I can sit in a meeting all day long if the meeting is connected to my true self; but if the meeting is not connected to my true self, then even a fifteen meeting feels like a never-ending root canal!
This past year, we lost one of its great religious leaders of our time – The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes. Peter was a professor at Harvard University, and also Senior Minister of the campus Memorial Church. Two things I want you to know about Peter Gomes :
First of all, he was a man who loved his dinner parties. In fact, he became famous at Harvard because he often held these wonderful dinner parties at his residence near the campus. He used full silver service. The best china dishes. Exquisite crystal glasses. The entire dinner was served in his dining room that was perfectly appointed with antiques, because he was an avid collector. And of course, the conversation was always sparkling, because around that table professors and students and dignitaries would sit and talk and debate. It was the best conversational-salon in Boston!
I loved that about Peter Gomes. That’s who he was. He didn’t worry that it would be too pretentious or too formal or too elitist or too anything. He didn’t care. This was his true self, and he lived out of it. And he also did high tea every Wednesday afternoon for students, and years later, students still talk about the great experience of high tea at Rev. Gomes’ house.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to throw parties like that if that’s not who you are. I don’t have to throw parties like that if that’s not who I am. But Peter Gomes did it, because it reflected the best of who he was, and anytime the true self is authentically expressed, it is a beautiful thing, a transforming thing, and an inspiring thing. It is like a city set upon a hill.
But there’s something else you need to know about Peter Gomes. He had been at Harvard for many years, and finally, for a variety of reasons, he decided to be honest about his sexual orientation. He was gay man, and for a gay man of a certain age, that was not something easy to disclose. He was working at a prestigious university. He was a clergyman of the church. But he found the courage to say, this is who I am, this is who God created me to be, and I want to be honest with myself and with my friends and with my God. I still remember the interview that Ed Bradley did with him on 60 Minutes, when he shared with the world that part of his true self; it was an amazing moment of personal courage.
Was there fallout? Yes, there was fallout. Some university donors threatened to withdraw their support. Some nasty letters were sent to the university president. And some of those letters were sent to Peter Gomes himself. But in the end, he decided that there would be more joy for others, and more peace of mind for him, by publically honoring his true self.
I know it must sound so simple this morning, but the wisdom I offer is this: Be who you are. In big ways. In small ways. Be who you are. In emotional, physical, psychological ways. Be who you are. In theological and religious ways. Be who you are. At work and in relationships. Be who you are. With your family. Be who you are. And with your God and your faith and your church. Be who you are.
And when you reach one of those moments when you’re not sure you can risk it, or someone has made you feel badly about yourself, or if you are tempted to present your false self - remember that God holds you in God’s arms. And God sings to you: “You are the sunshine of my life; that’s why I’ll always stay around; you are the apple of my eye; forever you’ll stay in my heart.”