A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 22, 2017
Hebrews 10:22-25 ESV
Reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, Let Your Life Speak
To whom shall we be true? That is the question I am posing for the day. The answer, I suppose, depends upon whom you talk to.
And the responses to the question, “To whom shall we be true?” could be many and varied, and I suppose multiple answers for any one person would be in order. For instance, if we were to poll a group of married couples, many, no doubt, would reply, “I should be true to my partner or spouse.” And that would be a commendable answer.
Others might be quick to say that we should be true to God or to Christ. And that would be a commendable answer as well. Biblical references – either directly or indirectly – are many regarding being true to God, true to Christ, to the faith, true to scriptural teachings, and so on. Thus, the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encouraged his Christian readers to “draw near [to God] with a true heart” (10:22).
Faithful Jews seek to be true to God and the Torah (or Law). Faithful Christians seek to be true to the teachings of Jesus, especially as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. I don’t mind sharing that I seek to be true to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, while at the same time confessing that I sometimes fall short. Maybe some of you feel the same way.
Others of a patriotic mind might say that we should be true to our country, or to the flag, or to our servicemen and servicewomen.
Still others seek to be true to the principles of justice and equality, and they devote their lives to these causes.
And as I have already indicated, many of us might give multiple answers, stating that we seek to be true to several or all of these examples noted thus far. And we may say “Amen!” and applaud such personal dedication to being true.
But there is one other person to whom we should be true, and such may not always be the case. Too many people live their whole lives seeking to be true to something or someone, yet fail in being true to one person who really matters. And that is being true to self.
We are all familiar with that famous Shakespeare line: “This above all; to thine own self be true.” What a simple statement, yet how much truth and importance are packed into that one short line! In a slightly different version, Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” My, how I wish I could have taken that to heart and began heeding it decades ago!
Such precipitates another personal confession. (It seems that I have been sharing a lot of personal confessions lately, beginning with Christmas Eve. Maybe it has to do with age or with being in the ministry forty years. J) But here is today’s confession: In the early years of my ministry, I preached sermons that contained statements that I felt were expected of me; I developed my sermons and said things that others wanted me to say. In other words, I preached “doctrinal sermons” based on traditional, orthodox, Christian beliefs as stated in our denominational Confession of Faith. When you are a young preacher just starting out, you seek to please those who hold the keys to your ordination and placement in a congregation. And so, you prepare and preach good, doctrinal sermons based on good, orthodox teaching, whether you have really thought through what you preach or not. And in public worship, you recite the ancient creeds – Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed – because that is what you do when you are a minister in a confessional church. And you continue to do such, because that is expected of you, even if/when you begin to question in your own mind whether or not you really believe some of those ancient, traditional statements of faith.
Well, such was the way with me. I continued to affirm traditional statements of doctrine in my sermons, and I continued to recite those ancient Christian creeds when it was expected of me, even though I had begun to read outside my “denominational box” and had begun to question in my own mind whether I really believed some of those things or not. This led to a real bind of conscience. I began to struggle inwardly, as I was leading worship and the recitation of the creeds when I had begun to question some of those ancient teachings. For years I struggled with the disconnect, and with my own sense of self, and with my self-worth and integrity. Such led to the question of whether I should stay in ministry at all, or if I should change denominational affiliation and move to a non-creedal, non-confessional, progressive-liberal denomination that fit where I was and where I could be my authentic self.
As a bit of aside from the story, some years ago, I read a powerful statement that struck home and stuck with me, and I have tried in vain to find it the past couple of weeks. The author said, “Woe to the man who proclaims one thing from the pulpit, but believes another thing in his heart!” Yet such was the dilemma I was beginning to face.
And so, what I did was change denominational affiliation, moving to one that fit, as I have shared in sermons previously. And this United Church, of course, proved to be a perfect fit for me, as this congregation is non-creedal, non-confessional as well, which does not preach or teach doctrine or dogma. As I often tell newcomers or those inquiring about the United Church and what we believe, here at the United Church we don’t preach and teach what people must believe; rather, we preach and teach how Jesus would have us to live – lives of compassion, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, living lives of service to others, and seeking to do justice, and so on. And more so than at any other time in my forty years of ministry, I feel that I can teach and preach freely, and I feel that I am true to myself in whatever I share with you from this pulpit. I do not share anything from our pulpit that I don’t feel or believe in my heart. I seek to be as authentic with you as I can be.
But wait, there is more: being true to oneself is not the private domain of preachers by any means. Each of us, regardless of vocation or profession – in his or her own way – must discover the true, inner self, and then to that self be true. As Parker Palmer so beautifully points out in his book, Let Your Life Speak – one of my top ten, all-time favorite books – each of us must discover and be that person that is inside of us and not try to pretend that we are something else and not try to live our lives in a role that is not authentic to who we were created to be. As Palmer so well learned of his own life, we can go to great lengths to try to please others and try to fit the mold of what we think they want us to be, and be miserable in the process. But I don’t think that is what God expects of us.
I heard someone put it this way a couple of weeks ago: to find meaning in life is to discover our talents, skills, and passion; and then to find purpose in life is to find a way to utilize those talents, skills and passion in the service of others.
As Shakespeare wisely understood, if we are to our own selves true, then we won’t be false with others either. And when we can be true in all areas of our lives – true to partner or spouse, true to God or Christ, true to the principles of justice and equality, and completely true to self – well, such makes for a peaceful state of mind and contented life,
There is an old Jewish tale about the great Hasidic leader Zusia who has a dream about dying and standing before the angels of God. In his vision, the angels don’t ask him why he wasn’t Moses, or why he wasn’t Joshua; but rather, they ask him, “Why weren’t you Zusia?” Such is a question we don’t want asked of us when we come to the end of our days – “Why weren’t you you?”
Because each of us was created in a unique and different way. And much of the joy of life comes in discovering who that unique and different self is, and then to that self being true. May it be so for each of us. Amen.