Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, 16 January 2011)

Whoever I am, O God, I am yours!

Psalm 40.1-11
1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Floods. In Queensland generally and in Brisbane itself, we are in the highly unusual position of being able to say we’ve had enough rain, thank you very much. We’ve been through a trial this week, with a devastating flood comparable to those of 1974 and 1893. Some of us have suffered flood damage, some have given help to others, some of us have been spared damage to our house and property. Not one of us is unaffected. The Courier-Mail says that 927 houses have been flooded in the Centenary, Sinnamon Park and Seventeen Mile Rocks areas. Our suffering has been small compared to the people of the Lockyer Valley, where lives have been lost.

Our own house is by the river at Riverhills, and is—normally!—quite high above the river. We weren’t so high above it the other day…! We lost power like everyone else, and we were cut off by road. We were able to walk out through a laneway, which is how we had shelter at Brenda’s place, but cars couldn’t get away. People who wanted to leave did have another option; the local rowing club ferried people across to the other side. They were absolutely wonderful!

We had a street bbq on Thursday night to use up food that was unable to be kept because of the lack of power. We’ve got to know our neighbours better—and we’ve had to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers alike to get through these last few days. We are very thankful indeed.

I want to speak a little personally today—I seem to do that from time to time. You may find something of yourself in my reflections.

I’ve found that I’ve been a little disappointed in my own reactions in these few days. I’ve been irritable, especially with my nearest and dearest. I haven’t listened particularly well, especially to my nearest and dearest. I’ve been feeling stunned at times, unable to act.

And yet I’ve also been receiving phone calls, making phone calls, offering pastoral care, ‘being’ the minister and ‘doing’ what a minister does.

All this has reminded me of a poem called Who am I?, which was written in 1943 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was hanged on Hitler’s direct orders only a few days before the end of World War 2.

Bonhoeffer came from an upper middle-class family and had the sense of inner authority that comes from having such a background. Here is how this poem, Who am I?, starts:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Bonhoeffer appeared to others to have it all together, even while he was a prisoner on ‘death row’. But inside, it was a different story:

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick,
like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath,
as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers,
for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness,
for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends
at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying,
at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

When Bonhoeffer looked inside his own heart, he saw a different reality. Not ‘calm, cheerful, firm,’ but ‘restless and longing and sick’. Not ‘free and friendly and clear’, but ‘struggling for breath’. Not ‘equable, smiling, proud’ but ‘thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness’.

Bonhoeffer was different on the outside to what he was inside. Outwardly relaxed and confident, he was inwardly scared half to death.

I think, ‘Who could blame him?’—but Bonhoeffer disappointed himself. He wondered whether he were a hypocrite:

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself
a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still
like a beaten army?
fleeing in disorder
from victory already achieved?

Who are we? Are we sometimes one person, in control, resourceful and capable? Are we sometimes another—moved by anxiety into frenetic activity, or collapsing like a heap?

Can we both at the same time, a complete and utter hypocrite? Which is ‘the real me’? These questions haunted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and there were times they came to me and perhaps you this week.

Bonhoeffer didn’t leave it there. His poem ends like this:

Who am I?
They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God,
I am thine!

Bonhoeffer couldn’t answer his own question—am I one person sometimes, and then another? Am I just a hypocrite? Who am I really? He continued to be haunted by these questions, in his cramped and lonely cell.

He found no consolation in an answer to these questions; but he did find consolation in who he was before God:

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God,
I am thine!

Like me, you may have identified with the psalmist this week—a least a bit:

I waited and waited for God.
At long last God bent down
to hear my complaint,
and pulled me from the grave
out of the swamp,
and gave me a steady stride
on rock-solid ground.
God taught me a new song,
a hymn of praise.
Seeing all this,
many will be moved
to trust in the Lord.

We know a lot more about swamps after this week. We know about being pulled up out of an anxious, even dangerous, place. I’m not sure I know as much about ‘waiting patiently for the Lord’. And I’m still learning that ‘new song’.

Whatever my highs and lows this week, I’m confident of one thing: ‘Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!’ So I shouldn’t dwell on my lows. But neither should I congratulate myself on the highs. That I belong to God is more than enough.

Let’s turn briefly to our New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians 1. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he addressed them in this way: they were

those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…

And they were

not lacking in any spiritual gift…

Paul encouraged them in these words:

[God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But we need to remember that the Corinthians were a right royal pain in Paul’s backside! Saints? Huh! Blameless? Just read the letter for yourself!

The Corinthians were getting it wrong all over the place. When looked at from a human point of view, they were a mess. But God saw them differently. They were sinners who trusted in Jesus Christ and tried, however badly, however poorly, to follow him.

In the end, Paul was confident of this one thing:

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul says, ‘God is faithful’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, ‘Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!’ It’s the God’s eye view of me that matters. It’s God who loves me, it’s God I want to please, it’s God who is moulding and shaping me to be more like his Son Jesus Christ. I’m very glad to be able to say that. It’s going to be my New Song!

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Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon

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