September 25, 2011 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 25, 2011
Psalm 25:1-9; Philippians 2:1-13
“Who Should I Be”
Fall officially began this past week. It may be my favorite season (I’m not ready to fully commit to fall as favorite because the beauty of nature in winter’s snows, spring’s blossoms, and summer’s golden radiances speak to me so deeply). Fall has the blazing oranges, reds, and yellows on the trees, then the crunching of those same leaves underfoot. All this I love. But fall has something that the other seasons don’t have for me, something unrelated to nature, something that truly gives me life: I associate fall with new beginnings.
Perhaps this is because I’ve spent all but two years of my life - not including my infancy! - going “back to school” each fall, either as a student or a chaplain. When I was a kid, “back to school” meant new clothes and notebooks. At university, it meant seeing my friends again and having more great experiences. Later, it meant new programs, new relationships, new professional and personal adventures. New, new, new! If new beginnings were only a matter of the natural world I should, perhaps, have as a favorite season spring, when the earth returns to life after its long cold rest. In the end, I think that my affection for fall’s new beginnings is rooted in my understanding that it is a new opportunity for me to become a new me.
When I was younger, I didn’t realize that at every stage of life we ask ourselves, “Who should I be?” “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” Three decades ago, when I was in college, I’d have thought that, at the age I am now, I’d certainly have figured myself out, and that if I hadn’t, I would be pretty lame. In fact, I do understand myself pretty well today; I’m just not satisfied with it. I still ask myself “Who should I be?” I still think, “I want to be a larger human being.”
The author of our Psalm for the day was thinking similar thoughts. It is the prayer of someone who was somehow newly independent, someone making a new start, someone who felt he was in a particular place to make choices about how to live and who to be. He is in a place that makes possible some kind of transition, that affords some opportunity to remake himself, to start again, or at least a chance to get a few things newly aright. I wonder if those among us who are new students in their various programs are hearing these verses with particular immediacy! The Psalmist calls out to God, “Form my character!”
In his day, prayer was offered with hands uplifted. Our Psalmist begins by telling God, “I uplift my soul before you!” How vulnerable! The Psalmist lays the essence of himself before our God and says, “Work with this, I beg you!” “Fix me!” I appreciate the honesty of his next words: “I am trusting you with my soul; don’t let me down!” Some people, then and now, may think these words scandalous evidence of a pitiful faith. I like them, these words! They testify to the truth of the human fear of making ourselves vulnerable, even to God. The Psalmist says, “I’m placing my soul in your hands - let me be right about you!” Is that sentence manipulative? Maybe. Is it honest? Yes. Does God understand? Yes.
The Psalmist says, “Please, O God, forgive and forget my past stupidities!” “Oh yes!” say the rest of us. We, too, have some things to regret. At this time of new beginnings, we hold fast to the hope that, if God will forgive and forget, we can actually do it, too. How hard it is to move forward with confidence in thinking about who we should be when we remember who we have been. Some memories are very painful. Yes, let us join the Psalmist in his prayer for release from all that might convince us that growth is not possible for us, that we are chained to our pasts, that we cannot become more than who we’ve been. Christians understand the resurrection of Christ as freeing us not from the practical fallout of our sins (we are responsible for addressing our every wrong) but from the spiritual consequences of our sins. We are forgiven. We are freed to live into grace.
There are many things external to ourselves that challenge who we want to be – there are people around us with other standards, there are social and political ideologies; there are temptations to acquisitiveness and shallow goals. But how much more challenging are the things inside us that would derail our effort to become who we want to be. There is jealousy, greed, some limitless need for affirmation that makes us pander to people and things that are not “of God.” Our Psalmist is on a search for purity from the things inside of him that challenge who he wants to be. He is certain that he can be better, but he is not looking to lose his identity in the process. He does not want to become God. He does not want to become a particular person in his community who is a model of faithfulness and holy living. He doesn’t want to become someone else, he wants to become the self he knows he is called to be, that he can be. It’s like me saying, “I don’t want to become one of the saints of Christian history. I want to become Alison, realizing her own gifts and overcoming her own challenges.” The prayer of our Psalmist doesn’t say, in the words of the old TV commercial, “Calgon, take me away!” He doesn’t say, “Get me out of here, make me different from myself,” like so many prayers and praise songs today. He doesn’t say “Get me out of my life and onto your plane of existence.” He says “Get down here right now, God; meet me where I am, and help me out here and now. I live in the here and now. I need your holy guidance here and now. As I lift up my soul, you come down and receive it.” There is no pussyfooting here. Our Psalmist wants to change, he wants to grow, he’s thinking about who he should be and it’s a far cry from who he is now. He’s letting God know that he is serious about being transformed, and he’s telling God to get down here right now and help him out.
Our passage for today from Philippians has a different setting but a complementary message. Paul is writing to the community of believers in Philippi; they are divided socially and theologically, and he is telling them who they should be as a community and as individuals. Just as the Psalmist didn’t want to say, “Hey, I can be just like God!”, so Paul tells the Philippians not to impersonate Christ but to imitate him. Impersonators want their audience to confuse them for the one that they impersonate; they want to be just like their model, indistinguishable. They practice deception. Imitators of others don’t want to be confused with their model, they just hope to get a lot of things right, so that those who see them say, “Wow, Alison must be a follower of Christ.” When we impersonate, the point is affirmation of ourselves. When we imitate, the point is affirmation of the one we imitate. When we “Let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus,” we don’t pretend we’ve turned into Christ, we live in hope that we’re imitating him so well that he truly influences our thoughts, words, and deeds - and to HIM be the glory!
In Paul’s words, as with the Psalmist, we also see that humility is essential to God’s understanding of who we should be. The Psalmist notes that it is the humble whom God instructs and teaches what is right. The humble are those who are as aware of their own weaknesses as they are of their own strengths. They are not doormats, but they do, as we read from Paul, put others first. They can do this because they believe that God gives them the ability to act like Christ, to embody his encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy. Christ humbled himself, says Paul - he lived out his indivisible solidarity with human beings, he endured the lowest death, one reserved for traitors to the Roman Empire. Christ humbled himself in ways we don’t have to - if we imitate him only a bit, think of what we might accomplish for the beautiful, suffering people around us? If we can empty ourselves, we will stop focusing on ourselves: we will see the needs of others, and we will act. This, says Paul, is Christ-like humility. Humility was, in the ancient world, considered a weakness. Perhaps it is here and now! Paul was quite countercultural in teaching that having the mind of Christ didn’t mean becoming identical to anyone else - even Christ - it meant staying you; it also meant putting the needs of others before your own desires.
I often have the privilege of being taken into the confidence of people who want advice about what to do - what to do professionally as they graduate, or as they instigate a transition. I tell people to start not with the question “What should I do?” but “Who should I be?” Because I feel that if we can answer the second question, the answer to the first one will fall into place. “Who do I want to be?” one asks. The answer may be compassionate, generous, powerful, wise, enabling, instructing, rich, respected, famous, transformative, encouraging, consoling, worthy of imitation; the list is endless. The combination of attributes that we genuinely compile can tell us a lot about who we want to be, and what we might think, therefore, of doing.
“Who should I be?” The happy answer from scripture is - yourself. And - that God is already at work in us - God has created us, continues that work, and wants the chance to do more. How delighted God must be to hear us say, as did the Psalmist: “Form my character!” Help me figure out who I should be. Help me figure out how to get there. Help me trust your guidance. Help me to humble myself. Help me to imitate Christ. Help me!
May God help each of us, indeed, to become who we should be.
Henry Laugknecht, WorkingPreacher.org, 9/25/11
Susan Eastman, WorkingPreacher.org, 9/25/11
Barthelt and Taylor, eds, Feasting on the Word, 9/25/11, 15th Sunday after Pentecost