Who are you? | Sermon from 4/15/18

Who are you?

Seems like a simple enough question. Until you get asked it. Consider the last time you interviewed. Almost certainly, the opening question was, “tell us a little about yourself.” It seems simple, but it’s a loaded question: how much do I tell them? What do I tell them? Do I mention a family? Do I mention that I’m single? Do I talk about my hobbies? I build adult lego sets. Will they think that’s weird?

Usually, we default to talk about what we do. Who are you? Well, I’m a pastor. I’m a business owner. I’m a volunteer. I’m a mother. These roles offer definition to ourselves and a way to get at this larger question of identity: who are you?

And sometimes, others tell us who we are. Each time I worked at a college, I gained a reputation among the student body as someone to come to when facing a crisis in life. My job title was never life coach nor anything remotely similar. I was Residence Life Coordinator or Graduate Assistant or Coordinator of New Student Programs. But, I gained a reputation and students sought me out. The students answered the question who are you with a simple answer defining my reputation: a counselor.

In a small town like this one, we all easily and quickly gain reputations, for better or worse. Others answer for us, whether we mean for them to or not, who we are. We are a reliable worker, a go-to person, a handy mechanic, a smart business operator, a thoughtful school administrator, a wise counsel. Quickly, and without meaning to, we gain a reputation that begins to define, in the minds of others and perhaps even in our own, who we are.

And of course, we’re all too aware of how reputations can go the other direction. We can gain a reputation as one with a quick temper, or one who squanders money, or as unreliable, or difficult, or a grand stander. We can even gain a reputation as one to avoid, one to be watched, one who takes advantage of others, one not to be trusted.

No matter whether our reputation is largely positive or negative, and no matter whether or not our reputation is fair or not, we gain our reputations by living life together with others. It may be that our reputation is largely representative of who we naturally are. And certainly that’s the goal. But we all know that we can gain a reputation as someone other than we are, sometimes by no doing of our own.

For example, at times, in communities, I have been the wise counselor. At other times, I have been the guy who gets things done. And still at other times, I have been a liar. The first two, I would say are fair. The last one, the time I was the liar, I would say was unfair. But it labelled me in the minds of those with power and that was, simply, my reputation and my status in that community.

I found myself unable to do much about it. I had a reputation. I hadn’t actually lied about anything. And certainly I have never thought of myself as a liar. But there it was, trying to define me.

That’s the power of reputations to define who we are, based on what we do and what others say about us.

Who are you?

That’s the question that faces David, whose reputation is under attack in our scripture this morning. Hear now Psalm 4.

[Scripture]

David is in trouble. We don’t know what kind of trouble, but it’s the kind of trouble that has others criticizing him. It seems that he has spoken a truth to power that the power doesn’t like. The people are accused, by David, of being idolatrous, both in worshipping other gods and in pursuing material possessions. David has called upon them to change so that the whole community, together, may seek after God and know the blessings that come from relationship with God. David just wants them to get right with God!

But they resist. They impugn his reputation and drag his name through the mud. He says to his critics, “How long, you people, will my reputation be insulted?” It’s a rhetorical question for David seems to suspect that his critics will continue to demean him and deride his reputation for some time. Those words sound just like other, more modern and poetic words, “Haters gonna hate.”

He then, as Taylor Swift would say, shakes it off. He says to the people, and I’m paraphrasing verses 4-5: “take note: God takes care of me. God will vindicate me. So you better get right with God because, in the end, I’m right.” David is convinced that he’s right, that he knows the truth, because he knows God. He has followed God’s call on his life to speak truth to power, even though it has caused him trouble, even though it has damaged his reputation. David has a strong faith.

So strong that he rests secure, no matter what people are saying about him, because he knows God will take care of him, because he knows that God gives “personal care” to the “faithful,” because he knows that God will let him live in safety.

Unlike most of us put in the same position, David’s not lying in bed at night, stewing over what someone said to him. He’s not sleepless several nights in a row, worried about what’s happening to his reputation. He’s tired of the attacks, that’s for sure, as he opens the Psalm by crying out to God, but at the end, he’s convinced that he’ll be ok. David’s at peace. David rests assured. David’s not worried.

He’s basically saying to his haters, “I sleep well at night. How about you?”

Considering the withering attacks he’s apparently experiencing, this is remarkable.

When my reputation was impugned, when my name was drug through the mud, when those with power thought I was a liar, I lay awake at night worried about my future, angry about the injustice of the whole thing, hating on my haters. Perhaps you can relate. When have you found yourself awake at night, worried about your own reputation? Or perhaps awake, worried and angry about the way you’ve been treated publicly?

How often have you found yourself sleepless, worried about what other people think of you? Concerned about the way others talk about you? Wondering what the gossip is around town, or around the workplace, or around church, or within your family? Have you ever been worried that a secret, or something you didn’t want others to know, has been exposed and that others might be changing their minds about you?

We wouldn’t blame David if that was the case for him. It’d be normal, natural, if he was laying awake at night, worried about his reputation. It’d be normal if he wasn’t feeling at peace, if he felt agitated all the time, if he was grumpy and withdrawn from those closest to him. We wouldn’t blame anyone for that kind of behavior if their reputation was attacked without warrant, if people were spreading lies, if his name is being drug through the mud.

In fact, his reaction is abnormal. How can anyone have their reputation attacked and yet say, “But you have filled my heart with more joy than when their wheat and wine are everywhere! I will lie down and fall asleep in peace because you alone, LORD, let me live in safety.” No matter how convinced we are that we are living out God’s call, no matter how righteous we feel in our actions, that’s abnormal. That’s astounding!

In fact, how can we live the same reality? Can we?

Who are you?

When my reputation was drug through the mud, it affected every aspect of my life. I came home sullen, I felt depressed, I worried about what others thought of me. In some circles, I wanted to make sure that I maintained my good name. And in the circles where folks thought I was a liar, or at the very least suspected it, I worried about how to change that reputation. I had been labelled a liar and I wanted that to change.

For me, the answer to the question of who are you, at that moment of my life, felt like it was, “a liar.” And no matter how false; and no matter that the reputation had come because I was living out God’s call on my life, because I had spoken truth to power; no matter how much my situation was like David’s, being labelled a liar was devastating, for it began to define me.

Consider moments in your life when you have faced adversity, when you have felt attacked, when you have found your name under fire. In those moments, it’s hard not to feel like the first, the primary, and perhaps the only answer to the question, “who are you,” is that negative reputation: a thief, a cheat, unreliable, unfaithful, unrighteous, undesirable, unqualified, a jerk, a monster, a terrible person, and worse.

No matter how great the rest of your life is, if at work you’re known by a negative reputation, the rest of life seems to be overshadowed. Or if in town your reputation is poor, no matter how far away you get and no matter for how long, it seems the rest of your life is overshadowed by that bad mark against your name.

That’s the power of dragging names through the mud, of impugning reputations. It can define not only that part of us, but can define our life in general. The answer to the question, “who are you” becomes whatever that negative stereotype is.

Which is what’s remarkable about David. He doesn’t allow his haters to define him. The answer to the question “who are you” isn’t what his critics say. He doesn’t embody, nor accept, the negative stereotypes. His poor reputation doesn’t cause him deep angst. He’s not restless, anxiety-ridden, lying awake in bed worrying about himself and his future. He’s not concerned what people say in the halls at school, or over coffee at the Huddle House, or at Rotary or the chamber board. He’s not fearful, for he’s not defined by his critics.

David doesn’t let them answer the question “who are you” for him. That’s abnormal. That’s astounding.

Who are you?

Or, in light of our reputations that others give us, perhaps the better question is

Who defines you?

That’s the question at stake this morning. And that was the question at stake for me when my reputation was impugned. I didn’t know that was the question until a casual conversation turned into a remarkable one. In the midst of going over some paperwork, a pastor in our conference said to me, “who you are is not what you do”

This seemingly simple phrase held much power. Who you are is not what you do.

Consider how quickly we answer the question “Who are you” with what we do. I’m a pastor. I’m a business owner. I’m a volunteer. I’m a mother. Those roles become defining of who we are such that, when that role comes under attack, our sense of self, our very identity, who we are, feels under attack.

And to that identity in what we do gets added our reputation: We get things done, we lie, we’re unethical, we’re inspiring.

Our critics come to define us.

Unless you’re David. This is the remarkable thing about this Psalm. David can rest in peace, he sleeps well at night, and he finds joy because he knows that what he does is not who he is. For David, his critics cannot define him because he already knows who he is.

He is not a shepherd. He is not an up and comer. He is not a son. He is not a father. He is not a brother. He is not a giant slayer. He is not a hero. He has done or been known as all these things but that is not who he is.

So who is David? David is a child of God.

He says as much in verse 5. He knows that all will be well, that he will be taken care of, that God will come to his aid and hear his cries because “Know this: the LORD takes personal care of the faithful.” He knows this truth first and foremost and that truth defines who he is: he is loved by God. No matter how much his haters hate, he knows that God loves him and will take personal care of his situation.

David knows what the Apostle Paul knows: “if God is for us, who can be against us?…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth,” nor maligned reputations at Rotary, nor what people say about us at the Huddle House, nor what others think when they pass us in their cars, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” David, and Paul, and we today, can confidently say that who we are is not what we do because we are first and foremost loved by God.

Nothing can separate us from that love that will provide and care for us, that will restore us, that will grant us peace and hope in the midst of moments when we feel under attack and when our reputations are maligned. In short, no matter how much the haters gonna hate, we can rest in peace, for God loves us.

That love should be the primary thing that defines us. Who are we? A child of God, beloved of the Father. Who we are is not what we do. No, who we are is whose we are.

We are God’s. We belong to God. God gave his Son to die and be raised to life for us out of God’s abundant love. We are children of God, beloved of the Father.

And that is how we, too, can sleep well at night, no matter what others say. That his how we, like David, can say, “I will lie down and fall asleep in peace because you alone, LORD, let me live in safety.” We can know that reality, too, if we will move toward defining ourselves first and foremost the way God does: as a beloved child of the Father.

This means, we cannot let our critics define us. When we become consumed by the negative things others say, whether we think it’s true or not, we allow our critics to define us. In those modern poetic words, haters gonna hate. People will say negative things about us. I have had, and have currently, my critics. Living life together in community means that we will have others criticize us. But we have a choice of whether or not they will define us.

And when we make the choice that they will not define us, when we choose in faith to believe that God’s verdict on our lives, that we are beloved children, matters more than what anyone else says, we will be set free. The calling on our lives is to be authentic, to be who we are without putting on airs, without trying to be what others expect us to be. That calling may, like David, lead us to a place of trouble because God has called us to speak a hard word of truth, or because God has called on us to stand up for what’s right, or because God has called on us to defy the expectations of others in the direction of our lives. That was true for David, that’s why he finds himself in this present trouble, but he could follow God, and be authentic, be who God made him to be, because his faith taught him that who you are is not what you do but whose you are: a beloved child of God.

This is the power, the freedom, offered to you this morning. God created you out of love and in his own image. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. We all have our flaws and we all have given plenty of reason for our names to be drug through the mud. We are all sinful, that’s for sure, but that sin need not define our identity. When others recognize the sin in our life and call it out, that reputation need not define who we are. When others lie about us, when they make up false rumors, that need not define us. When our critics call around and spread distrust among their friends, trying to undo us, that need not define us. When haters hate, that need not define us.

For only God’s love for us should define us. God made us to be who we naturally are, to live out our personalities and our talents as a gift to the world so that the people around us may experience the goodness of God. We are blessed to be a blessing. And that’s all because God has called us by name, said you are my beloved child, whom I love; in you, I find favor.

If this morning, you find yourself like David: your name drug through the mud and your reputation unfairly impugned; remember whose you are: a beloved child of God, trusting that God will take personal care of you.

If this morning, you find yourself with a poor reputation, but one of your own making; your name has been drug through the mud but, if you’re honest, you know that it’s warranted; remember whose you are: a beloved child of God whose sins will be redeemed if you’ll confess your wrong doing.

If this morning, you find yourself with a great reputation around town, God says even to you that who you are is not what you do. It’s tempting to allow a positive reputation to define us, but when we do, we forget whose we are: a beloved child of God.

If this morning, you worry and fret about what others think about you, if you find yourself sleepless at night because of insecurities; remember whose you are: a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made just as you are.

If this morning, you worry and fret because you carry secrets that would ruin your reputation if exposed, don’t be afraid to bring your sins before God, knowing that the truth will set you free; remember whose you are: a beloved child of God, no matter what you’ve done.

No matter where we find ourselves this morning, we have this promise that David knew: God takes personal care of the faithful. Draw close to God, confess your sins, take your maligned reputation to God, trusting that God will take care of you. We can put faith in that promise because, like the Apostle Paul said, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” God will provide, God will take care; our job is to draw close through our spiritual disciplines, through confessing our sins, and through seeking to live at peace with one another. In this way, we follow David’s advice to “offer right sacrifices to the LORD,” which will allow us, as with David, to “lie down and sleep in peace,” no matter how much the haters hate.

I confess to you this morning that this is a truth that I’m still learning to live into, but one that has already had tremendous power to transform my life. I used to be highly insecure, I used to worry all the time what people thought of me, I used to carefully monitor my actions, worried what people would think if I expressed myself naturally. But the closer I have drawn to God, and the more I have been willing to confess my sinfulness and seek God’s love, the more I have discovered that no matter what my critics say, no matter what I may fear others say, I know that God says to me that I am his beloved child and am called and created for a purpose; and that makes all the difference.

We, no matter how sinful, are the beloved children of God. What you do is not who you are. No, whose you are is who you are; you are God’s beloved child. We can have that confidence when we choose, in faith, to believe that God’s opinion, God’s call, and God’s love matter far more than what anyone else says or thinks. If we’re right with God, if we’ll confess our sins and repent, if we’ll seek after God with all our hearts, being as faithful as we know how, we’ll draw ourselves deep into the love of God and there discover that no other opinion can define us.

What you do is not who you are. This morning, what defines you? Your critics? What you do? Your greatest sins or your biggest accomplishments? How you’re known around town? Resist the temptation to be defined by what you do. Freedom is offered this morning: freedom from insecurity, freedom from fear of what others say or think, and freedom from our own mistakes. That’s all because who we are is not what we do but whose we are: beloved children of the father.

Who are you?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

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