Sermon by Rev. Sarah Goettsch on 7/7/18
Exactly one week ago, in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, called Maple Heights, a 12-year old boy and his lawn-cutting crew named “Mr. Reggie’s Lawn-Cutting Crew” set out to mow a yard. As Reggie neared the end of mowing, he noticed a police car pull up in the driveway. A white neighbor had called the police on him, because this young black entrepreneur had inadvertently mowed a strip of land in the backyard that belonged to her. Reggie says that, while he noticed the policeman interviewing the neighbors out of the corner of his eye, and several of his crew some as young as 9 growing nervous, he didn’t stop mowing. He says he didn’t even slow down.
Since that day, Reggie has had an outpouring of support not only from the community, but from as far away as Argentina, Hawaii and Canada offering to hire him. The neighbor who originally hired Reggie and his crew set up a GoFundMe page, and already over $35,000 has poured in from around the world. He plans to use the money to buy better lawn mowers. Of the incident, Reggie says this, “America has stepped up and showed me love from everywhere.”
I share this story with you for two reasons. 1. Isn’t it good to hear a surprisingly heart-warming ending to a story that could have gone so predictably bad? and 2. the kid kept mowing. This second thing fascinates me in particular, because surely Reggie grew nervous when he saw things beginning to unfold. Surely he, like most kids, had the instinct to run in the face of potential danger. Surely his mother had warned him from a young age of a thing called racial profiling. Despite all of this, Reggie kept his eyes forward and continued mowing, slow and steady. To me, this reveals courage and remarkable fortitude of character and clarity of thinking. He did not run or fight or apologize; Reggie persisted.
It’s a grand image right now at this time, when the whole country seems to be asking each other suspiciously, “Who do you think you are?” just as that neighbor looked out her back window and thought, “Who does that kid think he is, setting foot on my property?” Just as thousands of workers across the United States in orchards and factories wait in fear for the day when immigration shows up and asks them, “Who do you think you are, coming to this country in the hopes of a better life?” Just as our administration says suspiciously to travelers from seven Muslim nations, “Who do you think you are, threatening our country’s safety with your ‘terrorism?’” Just as our governments say to women, “Who do you think you are, to demand choice over your own body’s reproduction?” Indeed, the list goes on with example after example of suspicious finger-pointing in our country accompanied by the question, “Just who do you think you are?”
Go back thousands of years, and we discover the prophets in the Bible are familiar with this same question. Today we encounter the prophet Ezekiel, who is being commissioned by God to warn God’s people about the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem. “You will be opposed by many,” God says to him, “because they are rebellious and stubborn. When they ask you, ‘Who do you think you are?’ say to them, ‘the Lord sent me.’” Ezekiel is but one in a long line of prophets who were opposed for their message of repentance, warning God’s people to mend their ways and care for the poor and aging and children in their midst. But Ezekiel, like the prophets before and after him, persisted, calling attention back to God generation after generation.
Jesus is asked this question in his very own hometown when he starts preaching to people he’s known his whole life. “Hey, wait a minute–just who do you think you are?” I too, do not relish returning home to preach, because it’s pretty embarrassing when congregants say things like, “I used to change your diapers!” and show pictures of you naked as a toddler in the bathtub. I don’t blame Jesus one bit for getting the heck out of town once he saw them point their fingers at him saying, “Now, you hang on there, son. We know Joseph and we know Mary, our kids went to school with you–you ain’t no Son of God. At best, your the son of a mediocre carpenter. Now why don’t you just move on down the road?” And he does, but not without curing a few sick people, which the author of Mark adds as a quick aside, but which is not inconsequential if you’re one of those sick people who got cured! I gotta say, I like Jesus’ style in this case, it’s almost a divine equivalent to flipping the town the bird…ok, you can ignore my words, ok, you can kick me out of town, but first I’m gonna heal these people right here! Jesus leaves that town, but he leaves it on his terms, on terms of healing and grace rather than suspicion and expulsion. AS he moves from town to tow, Jesus is persistent in his acts of healing, his forgiveness of sins, his words of grace.
These are all examples of times when one person says to another person, “Who do you think you are?” but the struggle gets really intense when that question is a thought in your own head, a question circling and swirling inside the mind, causing a maelstrom and spiral of self-doubt and despair. Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver CO, who coincidentally announced her resignation just this week, says in her post called “The Devil-Your Inner Critic”
“The accuser is the one who continually updates me on the distance between my ideal self and my actual self, between my ideal personality and my actual personality,between my ideal weight and my actual weight. It makes us go to ridiculous lengths to try to prove it right or to try to prove it wrong.” The accuser, then, whether you understand that to be Satan or just a voice in your head, asks the condemning question, “Who do you think you are? You will never be good enough or dynamic enough or thin enough or pretty enough or smart enough or perfect enough for anyone to love you, much less God.”
I often wonder if this is the thorn in Paul’s flesh that he refers to in our second reading for today, this thing that torments him…when Paul confronts governors and authorities and prison guards and executioners who ask him the question, “Who do you think you are?” does Paul have flashbacks of who he used to be–images in his mind of bygone days when he himself used to torture and murder Christians? When his accusers ask him who he thinks he is, does Paul answer in his mind, “A hypocrite of the worst kind.” Maybe. Paul isn’t alone in his human struggle between who he used to be and who he has become. But he reminds us that all those things–whomever we’ve been in the past and whatever we’ve done in former days–do not define us, that we have all been forgiven by the grace of God, that we are free from all of those voices from within or without that seek to condemn. We are saved. Accusing voices might seem unrelenting persistent, but God’s voice is eternally persistent. Those voices might be dominant, but they are not ultimate.
The ultimate voice is the one who persistently stood toe to toe with accusing authorities who asked him, “Who do you think you are to heal on the Sabbath? Who do you think you are to preach in our synagogue? Who do you think you are to heal the sick and forgive sins? Who do you think you are to raise the dead? Who do you think you are to call God your Father?” Jesus was asked this question dozens of times in his ministry by ones who were offended by his acts of radical grace, justice and mercy.
Finally, after Jesus is arrested and about to be killed, it is Pilate who asks Jesus this question, “Who do you think you are to call yourself a King? I AM THE KING.” And Jesus replies, “Whatever you say,” knowing in his heart that his identity will soon to be revealed to the entire world, not to this single man in a one-way interrogation, but rather on the cross. On the cross, Jesus finally answers this question, “Who do you think you are?” not with a word or a speech or a gesture, but with a death. Who does Jesus think he is? Exactly who he proves himself to be. The one whose love for this world took him to the cross, where he died to silence the eternal clamor of the accuser chattering in our ears that we are worthless, because this death, this resurrection, proves that we are not worthless, but rather, we are worth everything. Jesus’ persistence of grace is active resistance against those who seek to judge others.
When you offend someone by a righteous act of justice, when you offend someone by showing extreme kindness, when you offend someone by standing up and saying, “I beg to differ” and when they ask you, “Who do you think you are?” answer them the only truth we know to be true, “I am a child of God.” Persistence of grace is active resistance against evil in this world, because grace gets the final word, love and life get the final word, just as AMEN is the final word of the Bible, God’s ways persistently knock on our doors, forever silencing the accusing question, “Who do you think you are?” Keep on doing your thing, Mr Reggie, one lawn at a time, one step at a time, on prophesy at a time, one miracle at a time, one town at a time, one sick person at a time, one detainee at a time, one life at a time; God’s kingdom breaks in.