Chuck Robertson: I Am What I Am

A decade ago on Day1 I shared these words in a sermon: “It is far easier to add to a resume than to stand exposed before a mirror.” Ten years on, I still believe this.

You know, for a long time, whenever I would go to the doctor’s office and be told to get up on the scale so they could check my weight, I would actually turn my head away so as not to see the results. One time, the nurse - noticing what I was doing - shook her head and laughed saying, “Denial is a wonderful thing!”

Of course, we all know it really isn’t. But to open our eyes and take a good, long look at ourselves - at who we really are - can indeed be a daunting thing. In so many ways we are conditioned by forces all around us - not to mention those within us - to buy any product, follow any expert, engage in any program, do anything in order to come to a point when we can look at ourselves honestly and be convinced that we are, just as we are, truly loveable, truly worthy, truly good enough.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of himself as “unfit to be called an apostle” (verse 9) - “unfit,” quite literally from the Greek, “not good enough.” Now, reading through the rest of the books of the Bible, we might well say, “You think you’re unfit, Paul? Take a number and get in line.” From Genesis on, we hear from the people whom God called a recognition that they just were not quite up to par: Abraham and Sarah said they were too old; Jeremiah, that he was too young; Moses said he was unskilled in speaking. And Isaiah - in the passage from the Hebrew Scriptures also assigned for this day - Isaiah went straight to the heart of it all when, during a vision in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, as he faced the Divine Presence, groaned, “Woe is me. I am lost… for I am a person of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

“I’m lost, I’m not worthy, I’m too this, I’m too that, I’m not fit, I’m not up to par, I’m… just… not… good… enough.”

Now, Paul actually had a better reason than most to say this. After all, for years he arrogantly convinced himself that he was not only good enough, but better than others, because he was right and those who disagreed with him were wrong and deserved to be treated with contempt. Paul had indeed done some real damage in the lives of others and had left a lot of hurt in his wake. And how many others have followed in his footsteps: in crusades against those deemed infidels, in inquisitions against those deemed heretics, in burnings of those deemed witches… and in all the hurtful words many use today when somehow convinced that they are right and that being right makes them better than those who think differently. But make no mistake: arrogance can often be just another kind of mask, keeping others - or even ourselves - from seeing us as we really are.

Now, how easy it would have been for Paul to replace his earlier arrogance and self-righteousness with the opposite: a kind of excessive self-abasement, an obsessive sense of guilt and unworthiness. There was, in his time, etched on many tombs a common inscription, a very cynical and fatalistic one: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.” But as the 20th-century writer C.S. Lewis slyly noted, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Yes, this is the key that Paul the unlikely apostle had discovered, the key that opened up a new and abundant life for him. It’s summed up in just a few words: Chariti de Theou, eimi ho eimi - “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” This is nothing less than a statement of faith, appropriately placed here in a larger passage about resurrection, about new hope and new life made possible by the unfathomable love of God, the One who knows us behind all our masks and loves us still.

Despite being put down by those who hid behind impressive masks and holier-than-thou spiritual resumes, indeed despite any self-doubts he himself had, Paul clung to a deeper truth: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” And clinging to it, he pressed on_. Accepting God’s love, refusing to be held captive by his own sense of unworthiness and unfitness, he pressed on. As C.S. Lewis’ good friend J.R.R. Tolkien would say, “I will not walk backward in life.”

Years ago, as Canon (or right-hand) to then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, I had the pleasure of regularly accompanying her on visits to various Episcopal congregations and dioceses, and witnessed how, before each question-and-answer session, she would begin with a meditation on the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, culminating in that wonderful line, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words to Jesus of Nazareth then, Bishop Katharine said, are true for each one of us now.

She would go on to do something quite interesting, reminding us of the two creation accounts in Genesis. She said that we can choose to focus almost entirely on the second account, the tale of Adam and Eve’s sin, guilt, and expulsion from paradise. Or we can make our starting point the account in Genesis chapter 1, in which God creates all that is, affirming that it is “good,” and upon creating human beings, declaring that it is “very good.” Bishop Katharine would then go on to lead the group into a time of silent personal reflection on these things.

During the subsequent Q&A, most people would express deep thanks, and some even shed tears, as they recounted how it felt to acknowledge that they are beloved of God. With you I am well pleased. But what fascinated me most, and simultaneously saddened me, was the occasional person who, for various reasons, could not or would not accept that reality. Could or would only see the guilt and sin first and foremost and miss the belovedness.

Outside our Christian tradition, the Buddha is reported as saying, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” For all of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth, who proclaim a resurrection faith, believing that God who creates, who redeems, who makes of us a “new creation,” as Paul himself says in 2 Corinthians, how can we dare not to love our self?! It is not always easy.

Those voices both around and within us that continuously bully us into seeing only in the mirror that which is ugly or shameful or “just not good enough” can be overwhelming. But as I recounted at the close of last week’s Day1 sermon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once noted that “every human life is of inestimable value.” That includes my life; it includes your life; it… includes… you.

Like Paul, you and I can make a conscious, intentional choice to turn away from those awful voices that will bring us down if we let them. We can choose to instead hang on to that resurrection power working in us which is stronger than all the forces of death and decay. We can claim that remarkable grace of God working in us which Paul assures us “has not been in vain.”

My current boss, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, often closes a message by reminding his listeners to “love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it, love yourself as well.” Yes. Yes, each one of us can dare to take a good long look in the mirror, and recognize that the person looking back at us - with all the baggage we’d rather hide or deny - is still, and forever, a beloved child of God. By the grace of God, you are what you are…beloved, and that is more than good enough.

As I concluded last week, I offer this prayer again today.

O Gracious God, you created all that is, seen and unseen, and yet care deeply for each one of us with a love that is lavish in nature and limitless in scope. Help us, by your Spirit, to see ourselves and others around us as you do, and to share, in ways both practical and real, that lavish, limitless love; in the Name of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. Amen.