Questions: Who’s On First?


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October 21, 2018

Psalm 91:9-16 & Mark 10:35-45

One of the pivotal moments in the book and musical “Les Miserables” comes when the hero, Jean Valjean, has an opportunity to finally be out from under his past. Imprisoned for many years for stealing some bread and trying to escape, Valjean has broken parole and started a new successful, even reputable new life.

But as with many of us, maybe all of us, Valjean learns that one can outrun one’s past and its consequences for only so long. His nemesis, the intrepid Inspector Javert, has arrived and threatens not only to unveil who Valjean really is but take him back to prison and completely unravel his well-constructed life.

But then an opportunity happens. A man who greatly resembles Valjean has been caught. He is put on trial. And Valjean is faced with having everything he ever wanted. No more running. No more accusations. He can live his life in prosperity and in peace.

And in the musical, Valjean sings of his internal struggle. He who has been saved by the grace of God must condemn another man in order to be free. Over and over in the song, Valjean asks, Who Am I? Am I the person I once was, or am I a new person. Who Am I? If I let this man go to prison, does that not simply prove I am who they have said I am all along, an evil person? Who Am I? Am I a new person merely because I have changed my name, have money, do nice things for others? Or am I different? Have I changed? Who Am I?

Valjean bravely stands before the court and admits who he is and saves the innocent man. Valjean answers who he is. But isn’t that a great question? What would you do? Who are you? More than a song, I believe that is a question all of us ask. In fact, that may be the theme song for our lives. Many of us are on a lifelong quest to discover who we are. Who Am I?

Over the next several weeks, we are going to be asking a lot of questions. In this new series, Questions, Asking Jesus the most important questions in life. And there may be no more important question to ask than this one. Who am I?

Who are you? What defines your life? For many of us, it may be our jobs, our positions in life, that answer that question, this is who I am. Yet what do you do when you can no longer be that person? I spoke to a clergy friend who retired this past annual conference. I asked him how he was enjoying retirement. He said to me, “You know, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.” He said, “I had to come to grips that a large part of what defined me had gone.”

He’s not so different than many of us. Many of us treat life like a hall of mirrors, and we vainly look for our reflection, a pure reflection so we can know who we are. For him, a large part of that reflection was in the mirrors that speak of his ministry. But who was he when he stepped away from that reflection?

Some of us look into the mirror that reflects our family life, and that’s how we know who I am, who am I, I am husband, wife, mother, a grandparent. And yet because of the effects of life and time, eventually that reflection changes those who define you, find their own lives, and suddenly that reflection is cloudy; you may step away from that mirror and again ask Who am I? Relationships may not last, the reflection can be broken.

I am defined by the reflection of others, I am who they tell me who I am. I know some people like that. Their self-worth, their purpose in life, their personhood, is defined by how others see them, its defined by that reflection. But who am I when I can’t see the mirrors?

Of course, some of us have grown up with a funhouse mirror experience. And the reflection we have is warped, it shows us a distorted view of who we are. But you know, if that’s the only reflection you have, eventually you’ll come to believe that’s who you are.

In many ways, that’s the question that John and James are asking Jesus. Jesus, who are we? How do you see us? Can we sit on one side, and one on the other when you have Your kingdom? Of course, they pictured Jesus ruling over Israel, and they would be His right and left handed men, second in power. That’s who we are, isn’t it, Jesus? How do you see us?

And Jesus says to them, in effect, that they are asking the wrong question. Or perhaps more accurately, the right question, but asking it in the wrong way. Jesus says “the only way you can truly see yourself as I see you see you clearly is to ask this question. Who is on first? Who sits on the throne of your life. It’s not the side thrones that matter. What meters is Am I or am I not sitting clearly at the center of who you are.”

You see, that’s the problem we often make, if the election of my job or position is on the throne, it will fail me some day. If my relationships are at the center of my life, they will fail me one day because they will change. If other people and their opinion of me is at the center of my life, on the throne of how they reflect back to me, I will be in trouble. We find ourselves constantly trying to validate our lives, finding honor and purpose in life by other people. Yet their understanding is constantly changing. And we find we can never accurately measure our purpose by how other people see us because it’s constantly changing like a hall of mirrors I am one way with one person and somebody completely different when I am with someone else.

Of course, the most dangerous thing we can do is set that distorted mirror on that throne. Do you know some people who put that warped reflection solidly in the middle of who they are/ How painful, how miserable they are?

So Jesus says to John and James “Am I clearly at the center of your life, am I sitting on the first throne. Because it is only then you will see yourself as you truly are and see your purpose in life.” What do we see? What is the clear reflection of who we are?

First, we find that we are loved. I know we say it a lot almost every week, but that’s because we can forget so easily that God loves us. That’s who you are. Who am I, I am a loved child of God.

But the mirror says you are sinful, you are imperfect, you have flaws and blemishes. But that’s only my false reflection. The reflection says I am loved.

Oh, but the mirror will show you your past, show you the mistakes you have made, reflect your guilt. And Jesus says all that’s true. But that’s not who you are. You are not your mistakes. You are not your past. You are not what other people have done to you. You are a beloved child of God. You are not what others have said you are. You are not your job, you aren’t your relationships, you are not your titles. You are so much more.

And you were created to change the lives of others. You see, that’s the other part of the reflection, isn’t it? Jesus says “see yourself clearly that you are loved.” But then Jesus also says “see you were made to lay that reflection at my feet and love others”. It’s almost as if Jesus says to John and James quit worrying about who you are because I know who you are. Spend more time loving and caring for others. Soul searching isn’t a bad thing. But the only way to truly find your purpose is in loving and helping others. That’s a part of our DNA as United Methodists. Wesley noted that the Methodists grew closer to Jesus and saw themselves clearly the more they did for others. The more they served, the less they worried about their reflection. And of course, the more they reflected Jesus to the world.

And in the end, isn’t that the real question? Am I a reflection of Jesus to the world around me. Not do they see me. But do they see Jesus in me. Who are you? A loved child of God, more than your reflection, called to serve and reflect Jesus. That’s who you are. Amen