Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman
Who Am I?
This is the first in a series of sermons that will explore three questions that Kelly Gallagher, the head of the UCC Central Association, suggested that we consider. With Charley on his sabbatical for a while we have the space and the time to do some serious self-evaluation. The status quo is shaken up a bit. As I mentioned last week we have a “new normal.” For me the new normal is all about opportunity. The first question on our plate is, “Who am I?” Next week we’ll consider, “Who is my neighbor?” And, the following week will be, “What is God calling me to do?” These are all great questions and they all interrelate. So, let’s give it a go.
I have a memory test for you. Hold up your hand when you know what these things have in common. United States Navy Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale. June 18, 1992. Dan Quayle. Al Gore. And, this quote: “Who Am I? and Why am I here?” For those still wondering, the common denominator is the vice-presidential debate on June 18, 1992. The presidential contest was between the incumbent George H. W. Bush (who had pretty much blown it with his read my lips no new taxes quote), the young charismatic governor from Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton, and the quirky Texas business man running on the Independent ticket, Ross Perot. Ross Perot had selected Vice Admiral Stockdale as his running mate, and this debate was his debut on the largest political stage of his life. He had not been informed that he would be in the debate until the week before June 18. The other candidates however were thoroughly prepared. At the start of the debate each candidate was asked to provide a brief opening statement. Gore and Quayle offered their well rehearsed and polished synopsis of their positions. Vice Admiral Stockdale on the other hand, led with two questions that became the focus of late night comedians and pretty much everyone else for months to come. He stared into the camera and with deadpan expression said, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Of course he went on to answer his own questions but no one remembered any of that. It was just too easy to make fun of him. Jim Stockdale was no politician. He was a career military man who served his country with honor and distinction. On September 9, 1965 he was the flight commander on a mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down, captured, and served as a prisoner of war under brutal conditions, enduring incredible torture and hardship for the next seven and a half years. He organized and led his fellow POWs as they supported each other and resisted the enemies’ attempts at using them for propaganda. When he was ultimately freed he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Jim Stockdale knew who he was. When interviewed years later about how he was able to keep hope alive for those seven plus years he said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Jim Stockdale was no fool. Jim Stockdale was a genuine American hero. He simply was not a politician. Did he know who he was? Absolutely, and I’ll bet he knew who he was a lot better than many of us know who we are. He accepted the vice-presidential candidacy because he was a patriot and felt it was his duty to continue to serve his country with honor and distinction. Yes, folks made fun of him for months, years even, but when we look at the man in the context of who he was it does not seem quite so funny. Jim Stockdale knew darn well who he was. How do we know who we are? How does anyone figure out who they really are? The default answer to that is that we typically define who we are by what it is that we do. That works ok for a while but it has its drawbacks. Consider the problem with retirement. We spend years planning on how great it will be, and all too often discover that it’s not what we thought. I’m no longer the lawyer, business owner, police officer, teacher, you pick it. We are suddenly something else. We are a former one of the above. Or, you’ve lost your job for whatever reason. Maybe you’re laid off, fired, you got sick. Once again you are a former whatever. You’ve spent your adult life raising a family and suddenly the kids are out of college, pursuing a career in California, getting married and having families of their own. You are again a former something that you did not expect. The house is uncomfortably quiet and you’re not quite sure anymore who you are and why you’re here. Certainly our careers are important and there is not anything much more satisfying than seeing your kids do well, but…Who am I? And, Why am I here? Better yet, who am I as a worshipper and participant in the life of Franklin Federated? And, what difference do I make to this community and the larger community of Franklin and beyond? These are questions I cannot answer for you. But they are important. We choose what it is that we do professionally for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes we are forced into a choice that we might not have made. Life happens. But I would suggest to you that who you are goes much, much deeper than what you do. Sometimes the two things come together perfectly but for most of us there must be compromise along the way. Did I want to be a merchant for thirty-five years? I was okay at it and it certainly helped in contributing to the family budget, but was it me? To be honest I would have to say yes, and no. During my Woodstock years while at my first college I was called in to the dean’s office for some behavior issues. Dean Yates said to me, “Dan, what do you want to do with your life?” My response was a combination of flippant and visceral. “Dean, I think I would like to be a shepherd.” This was not an answer he was expecting. Our meeting ended shortly after as did my time at that school. It’s funny though as I think of it now. Was there a part of me then that knew someday I would be a pastor? My decision to do what I’m doing now did not happen for another almost 50 years. In the meantime life simply happened. I think we are all created with unique and special gifts. Do we know what they are and how we can best use them? Most times, no. It’s trial and error. And, we have all had our fair share of that. We are tested every day aren’t we? I think God intends for us to be who we were created to be but in the meantime we have to go through a lot of stuff to get there. And, I think, once we are there, that is when we are absolutely the happiest we can be. That does not mean we no longer have challenges but we are simply much better equipped to handle them. You are operating from a place that is grounded in the security of knowing you are doing the right thing because you are acting on behalf of who you really are!
Let’s look for a minute at today’s scripture. The apostle Paul is likely the greatest single contributor to the New Testament. Fourteen of the twenty-seven books are attributed to him directly. There is some dispute over the authorship of some, but even the disputed letters were clearly influenced by his style and his theology. I think we can pretty safely say that Paul was the greatest evangelist of all time. But who was he before he was Paul? This is what we see in today’s reading. The short answer is that before he was Paul he was Saul; same person, different names. Paul is simply the Roman translation of Saul. And, it would appear that the names were pretty much interchangeable. Most notable however, is what he was doing in his professional life and what changed and what stayed the same. He was highly educated. His father was a Roman citizen which meant he was too. He was able to enjoy a kind of dual citizenship then between his strong Jewish Pharisee background and the secular Roman Empire. Paul was brilliant, highly educated, and Paul was zealous in defending his faith. Prior to his conversion this did not work out so well for the early Christians. He was something of a moral bounty hunter searching out, arresting, and prosecuting those who he perceived to be a threat to his faith tradition and therefore to the stability and social order of the day. And, he did it well. It would appear his God-given gifts were a keen mind, devotion, and passion. He likely was pretty certain as to who he was. But something big happened. Paul had his “come to Jesus” moment; quite literally. The result of which turned his career around by 180 degrees. He went from prosecutor to protector of those early Christians. And, from there to evangelist establishing Christian communities all over the then known world at great personal risk, eventually sacrificing his own life. Was he a different person? No, he was the same guy. He had the same keen mind, devotion, and passion like he always had. He simply found the place and purpose of his life. He became the person who God intended him to be. For most of us it does not happen so abruptly. It would be great if Jesus walked in here now and told each of us what we should be doing. But, that would be too easy. We need to go through all of those trials and all of those errors as we approach the kind of self-knowledge that makes us one with whom we are and who we were created to be. This is one of the most important parts of our fellowship together as a community of faith. We have each other to lean on and to support as we work toward that goal of defining our essential selves together. With that kind of support and grounding there is nothing we cannot do. With this understanding we are better equipped to share, to be compassionate, and to forgive each other as we work our way individually and collectively towards defining our essential selves and living in to who it is we really are, and who we were so lovingly created to be. For Jim Stockdale it was seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese hell hole. For Paul it was a conversion experience on the road to Damascus. What is it for you? What is it for me? It is likely somewhere in between those two experiences. But, we are indeed blessed to have each other to bear witness to our journey, and a loving and compassionate God who knows us better than we can ever know ourselves. May we continue to be there for each other as we go through our trials and errors. And, may we be consoled by the knowledge that God yearns for us to be the unique and special and gifted person who he created us to be.
Let us pray:
Holy and loving God we know that you know who we are and who you created us to be. Help us to help each other as we dig deeply, explore our growing edges, and with your help, blossom in to who we are meant to be. May we be blessed with patience and understanding for ourselves and those around us as we dare to be both bold and vulnerable in our quest to be one with you that we may be empowered to fulfill the purpose you intend for each of us. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.