This sermon was part of the "Said Jesus Never" sermon series at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. It was preached in The Way on July 15, 2018.
Genesis 1:27 Common English Bible (CEB)
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.Romans 12:1-2 Common English Bible (CEB)
Living sacrifice and transformed lives
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.
To thine own self be true. Sounds pretty biblical, right? That use of thine and the inverted sentence structure is pretty King James-y. It’s probably somewhere in all that small-print, red-letter text. Yeah, well, it’s not actually in the Bible, like at all.
It sounds King James-y because it’s Shakespeare. (You think the pastoral team assigned this sermon topic to the literature professor on purpose? Yeah, me, too.) Anyway, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, says this to his son Laertes as he sends him off to France (Hamlet I.iii.55-81). Bummer that it was Polonius and not Jesus. It’s still good advice, though, right? Yeah, wrong.
Jesus never said this because it’s terrible advice, and if we consider the context, if we look at the rest of Polonius speech, the reason becomes clear. Among the other pieces of sage wisdom this father has to offer are: neither a borrower nor a lender be; give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. There are further warnings against seeking out new friends and against making one’s thoughts known too soon. If Laertes follows this advice, he’s going to come back from his study-abroad year in Paris without having expereinced much of anything.
The person who follows this advice, be they Laertes or one of us, will find themselves disconnected from the community. This advice creates people who exist in isolation from one another. Neither a borrower nor a lender be—do not admit when your resources fall short and you need help, do not offer your bounty to neighbors who are in need. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice—listen even when you disagree, don’t let anyone know what you think. Don’t let yourself be vulnerable to the potential of new relationships. To thine own self be true—put yourself first, look out for number one, take what you can get.
Let’s also remember that Polonius’s story does not end well. ***spoiler alert*** He fails to follow his own advice, involves himself in the queen’s business, and is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a tapestry in the royal bedchamber. And then Hamlet is like “sorry not sorry.”
To thine own self be true, said Jesus never.
What does our scripture say then? Like so many of the rebuttals to ‘said Jesus never’ phrases in this sermon series—it’s complicated.
On the one hand, we have the passage you heard from Romans this morning. “Do not conform to the ways of the world.” On its surface, this advice from Paul to the church at Rome might seem to suggest the sort of independent individuality that Polonius is talking about when he—not Jesus—says, “to thine own self be true.” But Paul also says that we are to be transformed as living sacrifices to God.
As Christians, we are not called to reject the values of the world in order to be true to something that is interal to each of us as individuals. That way lies hedonism and egoism and narcissism, self-righteousness and neo-liberal exploitation of the other. Rather, we are called to reject the individualistic values of a broken world in order to turn our faces to the image of God. Which leads us to the other scripture you heard this morning—“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” God created all of us, collectively, in God’s own image. No single one of us alone can be the image of God. Our ability to embody the image of God is predicated on our connection to the community.
As Christians, we are not called to the sort of rugged individualism that Polonius’s ‘to thine own self be true’ speech recommends for Laertes. We are, however, called to be in community with one another, to allow our minds to be transformed in the pursuit of God’s vision for the kingdom here on earth, to be God’s partners in the continuing project of the creation.
What does that even look like, though? Well, it looks an awful lot like Jesus. When he was ready to begin his ministry, Jesus did not strike out like a rugged individualist to go it alone—he found the twelve disciples plus a lot of friends to do the work with him. Notably, the people with whom he chose to assiciate were not the most powerful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He healed outcasts—lepers, women, Samaritans. Jesus dedicated himself to that vision from the Genesis creation story that all of humanity is created in God’s image.
Our call, like Jesus’s call, places us in tension between the recognition that each of us individually have been created by God as unique persons. We have a variety of life experiences. We have a variety of gifts and talents. We do not all contribute to the ongoing work of creation in the same way, and we do need to recognize the value of our variety. However, we also need to recognize that these individual gifts, talents, and experiences do their best work in concert with one another. It takes all of our talents, all of our skils, all of our life experiences to embody the image of God.
The thing of it is, though, it’s really really hard to work together with all sorts of different people and respect all their different sorts of talents. Our very human egos get in the way, our very American values of independence and self-sufficiency get in the way. I’m going to tell you a hard truth about myself. I don’t always like all of the people I interact with. I don’t like some of the people I interact with here at Mount Olivet. That’s a hard thing to say out loud looking at all of your faces. I’m sure there are some of you in this room who don’t particularly like me. Or maybe you’re thinking of someone else in the congregation whom you don’t particularly like. I’m going to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way. The dislike we feel for our fellow congregants might be specific—related to some past harm—or it might be a general pet peeve. The challenge we face, our call as followers of Christ, is to love each other anyway. To look at that person whom we don’t enjoy and recognize that, like us, they are a piece of the image of God. They are our partner in God’s ongoing project of creation. We have little control over our feelings, but love is an action. The kind of love that God calls us to is a choice to act for the benefit of those around us. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus says. And also, love your enemy, do good to those who hate. And, I would add, also to those whom you don’t particularly like, regardless of how they may feel about you. Love them, too.
In here we have rituals that help us to love each other no matter how else we might feel. In a few moments, we’re going to celebrate one of them. Jeff is going to lead us in the communion liturgy and then we are going to break bread together. This ritual of eating from the same loaf and dipping in the same cups, and, I would add, partaking from our hospitality ministry, means that for this one day each week our many individual bodies share the same fuel. The very stuff that keeps us going we hold in common.
Outside of these walls, it gets even harder. Most of us don’t share communion with our coworkers or with our classmates or with the people who live in our neighborhoods. When we have to interact with people who are not like us, who don’t pray like us, who don’t speak our language, who don’t look like use, who don’t vote like us, our insticnt is to be true to our own selves, to look our for number one. Our call as Christians is to love them anyway. Our challenge is to discern what love looks like. That process of discernment is a topic for another whole sermon, but for today I’ll just say that it starts with listening humbly and without judgement or rebuttal as people who are not like us tell us the stories of their lived experience.
To thine own self be true, said...Jesus...never.
What Jesus did say was to be love, to be true to our individual contributions to our collective embodiment of the image of God.