SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 4:17-24 – So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Plastic Jesus sermon series
#3 – Self-Image: Check Me Out!
Aug. 28, 2011
When I was in middle school, I had my favorite sweatshirt that I wore all the time. It was coolest sweatshirt ever. It was green and said “Slippery Rock University” on it. I had never heard of that place before and had no idea where it was. I actually didn’t even think it was a real school. But it was a cool name and a cool sweatshirt, so I wore it. One day when I was wearing it, a man stopped me and said, “Hey, Slippery Rock! I graduated from there. Do you know someone who goes there?” No. “Do you want to go there?” No. “Do you know where it is?” No. “Then why are you wearing the sweatshirt?” I don’t know.
Looking back now, I do know. I was wearing it because I thought it looked cool, and by extension I thought wearing it made me look cool. That sweatshirt is long gone, but I have plenty of other things that I’ve placed around me in hopes that they make me look cool, not the least of which is my wife.
As we continue our sermon series today called “Plastic Jesus,” we’re going to look at another way we can combat the spirit-numbing existence we often find in the spiritual suburbia. We’re going to continue and try to move deeper into our own spiritual lives, beyond the glossy façade that we are often encouraged to put up. To go deeper, we have to be willing to go below the surface of our faith.
Can we make ourselves appear cooler than we actually are? I believe subtly, maybe even subconsciously, we fall prey to the idea that we can transform into a better version of ourselves through the things we put on or around us. Growing up I had a big collection of sports jerseys that I would wear almost all the time. On Monday I could be Boomer Esiason, on Tuesday I was Chris Mullin, on Wednesday I was Put Rose, on Thursday I was Dominique Wilkins. I had all kinds of shirts I could wear that I thought were an improvement upon plain old Kory Wilcoxson.
I don’t wear the jerseys anymore, but I still have my different shirts. There’s the husband shirt and the daddy shirt and the pastor shirt (it’s actually a robe). When needed I can slip into my athlete clothes or my teacher suit or my handyman outfit (the family hides when I put this one on). I have all kinds of things I can put on that I believe are an improvement on the original.
Now, you could argue that these aren’t disguises; they are simply symbolic of the roles we play every day. Spouse, parent, employee, homemaker, coach, book club member. This is true. But sometimes those rotating roles act as a centerfuge. You remember that from science class, right? You would put a liquid in a centerfuge, and this spinning device would whirl around so fast that the liquid inside would separate. Similarly, the constant flow of roles and responsibilities in our lives can make us spin so fast that we move away from our center and toward the periphery of our faith and existence. When that happens, when life becomes a station-to-station, role-to-role existence, we lose sight of the essence of who we are, the “new self” that Paul talks about in Ephesians. And when that de-centering happens, and I think it happens a lot, we lose the anchor for our self-definition. We are no longer grounded in God’s reality, where, as Paul says, “we are created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Instead of claiming ourselves as who we are, warts and liver spots and flab and all, we let our roles define us, and that draws us into the subtle competitiveness that exists in spiritual suburbia. In that world, we are primarily defined in two ways: (1) by what we do and (2) by what we own.
When talking about silence last week, I talked a little bit about how we may struggle in our attempts at simply being because we always feel we should be doing. And this is reinforced by how we define ourselves. What’s one of the first questions we ask when we meet someone? “So, what do you do?” And doesn’t the answer always steer the direction of the conversation? If you say you’re in sales, they. may ask about your product. If you say you’re a teacher, they may ask about your classes. If you say you’re a pastor, they may give you an offering. In spiritual suburbia, you are what you do.
The second way we define ourselves is more insidious, because it requires us to form our identity over and against those around us. This is especially true when we are blessed with abundance and the means to have he good life. And while we may not admit it, we begin to believe we deserve this and it contaminates and poisons how we view those who have more or less than us.
Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, held a workshop at a seminary with over 200 pastors in attendance. When asked why the church struggles to get the funding it needs, the two main reasons named were greed and selfishness. Fuller asked, “Raise your hand if you think it is possible for a person to build a house so large that it’s sinful in the eyes of God.” All the hands went in the air. “OK,” said Fuller, “then can you tell me at exactly what size a house becomes sinful to occupy?” The pastors were silent. Finally, a voice in the back of the room said, “When it’s bigger than mine.”
While many of us wouldn’t like to admit it, there are unwritten rules in spiritual suburbia about what it’s OK to own and not to own in order to be deemed worthy. Stop for a minute and think what your first reaction is inside when you pull up next to a car that has a little more rust than yours, or doesn’t have the same luxuries as yours, or makes a funny grinding noise that yours doesn’t. How do you feel when you look at the person next to you and know you’ve got it a little better? That is a feeling we have to constantly fight against in order to break out of the grip of spiritual suburbia.
This tendency toward comparison is even true – maybe most true – when it comes to our children and grandchildren. Now I admit right up front that I’m guilty of this. I have two bright, beautiful daughters, and while I’m not biased enough to believe they are the smartest, most beautiful girls in the entire universe, I believe they are in the top one percent. And when anyone implies that they are less than the best – even if it’s true – my ego jumps up to defend my wounded sense of self. There are a lot of parents in the world who wish their children were as good as average, but average isn’t enough in spiritual suburbia. And really, what is average? Isn’t it just a term of comparison?
This all ties back to the Slippery Rock sweatshirt and the sports jerseys, because it’s all a function of what Goetz calls image management. We work hard to manage how people see us, because no one wants to be seen as just average, and I wonder if there isn’t a fear inside all of us that who we are by itself isn’t quite good enough. So we always are trying to make ourselves look better, as if we can improve upon God’s handiwork. How else do we explain the fact that last year as a country we spent $2 billion on missions and $8 billion on weight reduction programs?
The irony is this: We are homeowners who take pride in the size and appearance of our houses, but serve a Christ who had nowhere to lay his head. We are consumers who strive to drive the best cars, yet worship a Christ who walked everywhere. We are parents who want our kids to be first-stringers instead of benchwarmers, and yet we worship a Christ who welcomed all the children, not just those on the honor roll. We are a culture that defines our value based on our performance and productivity, and yet we worship a Christ who died on a cross – not a very productive performance, at least on the surface.
When Christ calls us to deny ourselves, I believe he is talking about the false image of self we are constantly trying to manage. And that is much harder in a world where our image is so much more accessible through technology. When we go online, we can be anyone we want, and so much of the activity on social networking sites like Facebook is about managing an image. Whether we prefer Facebook or face-to-face interactions, too much of our time is spent trying to stand out above the crowd when Christ calls us to be one with the community. The spiritual suburbia tells us if we want to make a name for ourselves, we have to be so much more than what we truly are. Christ tells us that if we want to make a name for ourselves, we just have to be ourselves, and leave it to God to makes us more than ourselves.
Come to think of it, when we talk about how we see ourselves, we should be all about image management. Our image should be very important to us. Because the first chapter of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God and Paul tells us our new self was created according to the likeness of God. That’s the only image that matters. You are not defined by what you do or what you own. The world will try to tell you differently. Wear this, buy this, drive this. Don’t believe the hype! Doesn’t matter whether you went to University of Kentucky or Slippery Rock University or the School of Hard Knocks. You are defined by who you are and Whose you are. Period.